Three NCAA Div. III national titles
PELLA--Rebuilding is not a word you’ll find in the vocabulary of the Central College volleyball team.
The Dutch lost five of seven starters to graduation, including the program’s all-time career digs leader, Chelsea Grieger. The lineup that’s left is filled with question marks and has a meager amount of experience. Yet coach Kent Clayberg is confident that Central’s new leaders and some talented younger players will return the program to top contender status. The Dutch have captured 17 Iowa Conference titles, but none since 2007.
“You can’t deny we’ll be short on experience but we’ll have a group with strong physical gifts and we’ll have extraordinary leadership within the team,” Clayberg said.
That leadership is generated from the team’s six seniors and co-captains. They’ll look to build on a championship tradition that has captured 17 Iowa Conference titles, 11 NCAA Division III tournament berths and three national trophies.
“They’re a passionate group, not just for volleyball but for the ideals and family of Central volleyball,” Clayberg said. “They’ll be ready to step in and engage in the competitive experience for all that it’s worth and put their stamp on the history of our program.”
Clayberg hasn’t forgotten the trials of replacing a skillful graduating class that led the Dutch to a 24-11 record last year, their 20th consecutive 20-win season, and a run to the Iowa Conference tournament final.
“The class of 2012 was a group of athletes that had played significant roles and been the bulk of our starting roster for the last three years,” Clayberg said. “But this is a transition that takes place every year. Every team has to redefine itself.”
While the quantity of setters is lower than other position groups, Clayberg is confident in the quality of his setting corps.
Jill Schildroth, a 5-8 sophomore, shared duties with graduated three-year starter Maggie Snyder last year. Schildroth averaged 6.3 assists while appearing in 35 matches and received the team’s Most Improved Player Award.
Sophomore Claire Stewart (5-7) came on late in the season. A setter in high school, Stewart was a defensive specialist as a rookie but could make a permanent move to scheming the offense.
“We have high hopes for both Claire and Jill,” Clayberg said. “We’re confident our setting will be very solid.”
Senior co-captains Emily Huegel, a 5-7 defensive specialist, and Sam Retz, a 5-9 right-side hitter, are both converted setters and could step in if needed.
“Emily and Sam both have setting experience and are smart, athletic players who understand our offense and could certainly help out in a pinch,” Clayberg said.
Sophomores Courtney Allen (5-6) and Brittany Lenth (5-6) could also contend, having played on the junior varsity last year. A handful of newcomers will also bolster the ranks.
Injuries forced some scrambling at outside hitter last year, but Central enters 2012 with five players who have varsity experience.
Three-year letterwinner Tess Reinig, a 5-9 senior and two-year co-captain, opened the year as a starter but was sidelined by a knee injury. Natalie Mason, a 5-9 junior, battled a nagging shoulder injury and will be sidelined this year as well.
“Our depth was cut significantly when we lost both Tess and Natalie,” Clayberg said. “But the upside is that a couple of our younger players come back with great experience.”
Sara Snead (5-11) averaged 1.87 kills and 2.26 digs, hitting .137 and appearing in 32 matches. She received the team’s Freshman of the Year Award. Jessica Laflin (6-0) averaged 1.97 terminations, 1.98 and a .215 attack percentage.
“Sara and Jessica are definitely varsity-caliber outsides with huge potential,” Clayberg said.
Junior Keeley Orvis (5-9) saw some varsity action last year, sliding over from the middle hitter position.
“This is a group where we could rotate players regularly and not have any drop-off in competition level,” Clayberg said. “They’re five very different types of hitters who could give us a change in rhythm when they enter the game.”
Sophomores Hailey Koerselman (5-7) and a handful of freshmen could challenge as well.
Ashley Pedersen, a 5-11 senior, averaged 1.54 kills and the team’s third-best attack percentage at .245. The co-captain also had 64 total blocks.
“Ashley is a solid, all-around player who has a nice range and will be a good mentor for a group of talented, young middles on the roster,” Clayberg said.
Fellow senior co-captain, Holly Osborn (6-1), will get a hard look.
“Holly gained valuable experience last year and has gotten better every year,” Clayberg said. “She’s ready to break out here in her senior season.”
Clayberg is also eyeing sophomores Hannah Welter (6-1), Kari Sandage (6-0) and Shantell Gish (5-9).
“Hannah saw some late-season varsity action and has huge potential,” Clayberg said. “Kari and Shantell are two very athletic middles who could also challenge for time on the varsity level.”
Laflin might also spend some time in the center of the court.
“She played all three front-row positions for us last year and could be a big help in the middle,” Clayberg said.
“The role of the right-side hitter has grown in our offense in recent years,” Clayberg said. “We feel like we’re in good shape with a returning starter and a senior with varsity experience.”
Junior Liz Ihnen and Retz are the early favorites to start. Ihnen (5-10) appeared in 33 matches last season, averaging 1.31 kills and a .170 attack percentage. Retz has seen some varsity action in each of the past three years.
“Liz is a powerful, powerful attacker,” Clayberg said. “Sam is a great athlete and can handle the demands of the position very well.”
Juniors Andi Cameron (6-0) and Susan Buckley (5-9), along with sophomores Kaitlyn Hilpipre (5-9) and Stephanie Koch (5-7), add depth to the position.
The biggest question to answer for Clayberg is how to replace graduated libero Grieger, a three-time all-conference selection who racked up a school-record 2,451 career digs. She also holds the school’s season records for digs (822) and digs per set (6.18).
“Obviously filling the void of Chelsea will be the focal point of our defensive training,” Clayberg said. “It’s a difficult challenge to replace one of the best all-time players in the history of Central volleyball, but we feel great about our prospects. This position group could end up being our deepest on the roster.”
The Dutch look first to senior co-captain Lindsey Von Gillern (5-7) and Huegel. Von Gillern averaged 1.48 digs 18 matches last year while Huegel tallied 1.15 digs per set in 16 matches.
“Lindsey and Emily are experienced varsity players who could step in nicely as the libero or defensive specialist,” Clayberg said.
Also looking to contribute are juniors Jodie Landt (5-3) and Amanda Higgins (5-6) and sophomores Jessica Mozaga (5-6) and Alexa Azinger (5-7). Two sophomore transfers and a couple freshmen will also make a push.
Clayberg acknowledges the increasing competitiveness of the Iowa Conference.
“Predicting conference results is always a guess,” he said. “All of the coaches have their system or their style, but each team is different year-to-year and no one really knows what to expect.”
To help prepare, Clayberg has intentionally designed a tougher non-conference schedule.
“It seems counterintuitive given we enter with less experience,” Clayberg said. “But learning to risk has to come in the face of challenge. You don’t really learn to risk when you play it safe, so we’re going to start going after what we want.”
Central will face a top-25 caliber club at almost every weekend tournament. Carthage (Wis.) finished fifth in the nation last year followed by Washington-St. Louis (Mo.) in sixth. Wis.-Whitewater tied for 21st. Receiving votes throughout the year in the coaches’ poll was Trinity (Texas), who the Dutch meet over their fall break trip to Texas.
Whomever the competition, Clayberg believes the biggest obstacle for the Dutch will be themselves.
“We simply want to chase down the team we could be without fear, without inhibition, without hesitation,” Clayberg said. “We want to pursue the team we could be in the face of the obstacles that try to convince us of something else.”
It won’t be easy.
“It’s daunting for any team, much less a team with as little experience as we have,” Clayberg said. “But with the talent and leadership we have in house, I like our chances.”