Three NCAA Div. III national titles
PELLA—The Central College volleyball team is focused on return, not repeat, and 11th-year head coach Kent Clayberg said the team is prepped for a successful season.
The Dutch finished the regular season with a 9-20 overall record. They did qualify for the Iowa Conference tournament with a sixth-place finish, but suffered a four-set loss at Loras in the first round. That ended a string of 20 consecutive 20-win seasons for one of the nation’s most successful programs. It was Central’s first losing campaign since 1990.
The numbers were harsh, and a bit misleading, Clayberg said.
“Last year was uncharted water,” he said. “We have never been in that situation before as a team, but it never felt like we were far away. We felt like we were continually on the cusp of success. If a few things go a little bit different, the entire season changes. It was a hard experience, but not a negative experience. Coming through a challenge like that allows our team to be bold and have expectations for this season. It is a testament to the faith the women have in each other. We are going to compete.”
Central continued its winning ways in the classroom. For the 13th-straight year, the longest streak in collegiate volleyball, the Dutch received the American Volleyball Coaches Association (AVCA) Team Academic Award.
“We are passionate about volleyball, but one of the tenants of our program is that we are more than volleyball players,” said Clayberg. “We want our women to have a complete experience and be invested in life, the future and academics. That is one of the things I love most about our program. Our women are more than volleyball players; they are great people and students. They are a delight to work with.”
Graduated Tess Reinig accounted for 210 kills and played 100 sets, both the most of any outside hitter, but Clayberg is confident in the returners on offense.
Juniors Sara Snead (5-11) and 6-0 Jessica Laflin were third and fourth in kills with 1.87 and 1.59 per set, respectively, and are experienced on the outside.
“Outside hitter is probably our deepest position,” Clayberg said. “We have some dynamic athletes with a wide range of strengths. Jessica and Sara both started at times last season and are long, powerful hitters with the potential to control a match. They can play defense and hit a variety of shots. They will be a major part of our offense.”
Senior Keeley Orvis (5-foot-9), 5-9 junior Shantell Gish, 5-9 sophomore Jennie Voss and 5-7 sophomore Emily Lewis round out the group of returnees.
“Shantell moved from middle hitter to outside and it was a good move for her,” said Clayberg. “She is a dynamic player and a good jumper with a quick swing. Emily is an explosive hitter with great athleticism. Jennie could add depth on the outside, as could Keeley.”
Natalie Mason is making a return to the active roster from the student coaching ranks and will also play outside hitter for the Dutch this season.
Graduated Ashley Pedersen posted 175 kills and 51 total blocks, second-most on the team, in 96 sets played. However, the Dutch return 6-1 junior Hannah Welter, the team leader in solo blocks (13), block assists (49) and total blocks (62) and 6-0 junior Kari Sandage, two players Clayberg believes are on the rise.
“Hannah is poised to break out this season,” Clayberg said. “She has all the tools to be a great middle hitter. Hannah is a tough hitter for any defense to control. She is strong, mobile and hits a heavy ball. She can set the tone at the net. Kari is speed. She is dynamic and explosive. She can hit with power, but her strength is her speed to the ball. Her quick attack puts a lot of pressure on defenses. If the defense is slow to react, the play will be over before they realize it.
“If Hannah and Kari become the players we think they are going to become, we are going to have a very good year.”
The middle hitter position has quality, but not quantity. Outside of Welter and Sandage, no rostered middle hitter saw varsity action. Sophomores Hannah Laflin (6-0), 6-0 Katie Appler, 6-1 Carla Papageorgiou and 5-11 Susan Elder can work their way into the rotation, as can Gish, who is listed as an outside hitter.
“Middle hitter is probably our thinnest position in sheer numbers,” said Clayberg. “Hannah (Laflin) has power and length and will push to start. Shantell, Katie, Carla and Susan may see some time in the middle, as well.
“We like athletes who can play multiple positions and are interchangeable and we have some of those athletes on our roster.”
The Dutch do not return a player with varsity experience on the right side. There is an opportunity for players to step up or step in, Clayberg said. Orvis, listed as an outside hitter, is moving to the right side. Seniors Andi Cameron and Susan Buckley and sophomore Emily Stoakes are all options for the open position.
“The right side is a question mark,” said Clayberg. “We have some good options, but none with experience. Keeley (Orvis) played middle her freshman and sophomore years, outside her junior year and is moving to right side as a senior. Andi has some experience all over the court and Susan is a solid, left-handed hitter. Emily is a player to watch, as well. She has power that turns heads and was impressive in spring ball. Jennie can play both outside and right. The options provide different dynamics.”
Orvis is the only right-side hitter who played a varsity set last season. She played eight sets at outside hitter with 11 kills and one block assist.
Central is experienced and talented at the setter position. Claire Stewart, a 5-7 junior, and 5-8 classmate Jill Schildroth were first and second in assists, with 6.46 and 4.85 per set, respectively, and accounted for a combined 921 of the team’s 1,007 assists.
“Having experience and talent at the setter position defines a team,” Clayberg said. “Claire and Jill allow us to do a lot of things on offense. Both can run different rhythms and are confident in their decision-making and skill sets. We are very comfortable with our options and leadership at this position.”
Stewart is the top returner in sets played (96) and service aces (26), as well. Schildroth tallied 15 kills on 39 attacks without an error.
The Dutch defense was young last year, but now it is experienced. Sophomore Tori Zempel returns as starting libero and junior Dzenita Bahtic returns as defensive specialist. Zempel averaged a team-high 4.66 digs per set. Bahtic played in just 24 sets, averaging 2.17 digs. They are complemented by 5-6 junior Courtney Allen, 5-7 junior Alexa Azinger and 5-3 senior Jodie Landt.
“The setters’ abilities set the ceiling for a team, but first contact and ball control are every bit as important,” Clayberg said. “We should be good at those positions with Tori and Dzenita. Courtney shifted from setter to defensive specialist and gives us added depth. Alexa and Jodie are in the mix, as well.
“We like what we have on defense. Our players are everything you want physically, but they also bring a spunky competitiveness and are positive teammates. They are not afraid to challenge hitters. When you are willing to compete on the defensive side, it allows you to be aggressive on the offensive side.”
Central plays a 32-match schedule, including a grueling 26 road matches, 22 of which are out-of-state. The regular season opens on Aug. 30 in Colorado Springs, Colo. and ends on Oct. 29 in Dubuque. The Iowa Conference tournament is set for Nov. 5.
“The power of Division III volleyball is in the Midwest,” said Clayberg. “Traveling to Minnesota and Wisconsin, we are going to play some of the best teams in the country. As far as the physical toll travel takes on a team, we are conscious of those issues. But the team loves each other and loves road trips.”
The Dutch compete in five tournaments this fall: the Molten Colorado College Invitational (Aug. 30-31), Gustavus Adolphus (Minn.) Invitational (Sept. 13-14), Northland Athletic Conference Challenge (Sept. 27-28), Saint Mary’s University (Minn.) Cardinal Invitational (Oct. 4-5) and Augustana (Ill.) Pumpkin Bash (Oct. 25-26). Tournaments call for different preparation than head-to-head matches, Clayberg said.
“In a tournament setting, you are playing unknown teams and need to adjust on the fly,” he said. “It simplifies things. More tactical preparation goes into head-to-head matches through film and detailed game plans. Game-planned opponents have game plans on us, too. I like our schedule. We added an extra week of non-conference competition, so we will have some matches under our belt before we open conference play.”
Central opens conference action with defending champion Wartburg on Sept. 17 in Waverly. The Dutch host Augustana (Ill.) three days later in its home opener.
“The level of coaching talent in the Iowa Conference has gone up,” said Clayberg. “There are teams that are physically more talented, but all of the teams are well coached. Every match is a tactical battle. Wartburg is the favorite, but it is not an easy road.”
Clayberg said the level of coaching is rising at Central, as well.
Monica McWilliams joined the staff this winter as a much-needed full-time assistant and is already having an impact, Clayberg said.
“Monica fits Central volleyball very well,” he said. “She brings great energy and passion to the program, both as a coach and as a recruiter.”
Meanwhile, Tara Kohlhaas and Chelsea Toppin are in their third and second seasons, respectively. Kohlhaas is a varsity assistant and head coach of the junior varsity. Toppin is an assistant with the junior varsity. Travis Yets is serving as a student assistant, after completing his career as a goalkeeper for the Dutch men’s soccer team.
“We are very blessed to have Tara and Chelsea in those roles,” Clayberg said. “They are passionate, committed individuals and do a great job of preparing our women for success. Travis has great experience. He is a talented volleyball player in his own right and will add another perspective to our training.
“The coaching staff and senior leadership are strengths of our team. Experience and talent are great, but you need the right people to make it all work. We have the right people.”
In addition to the coaching staff, Dutch volleyball is supported by many individuals and groups.
“The volleyball team is a big team,” Clayberg said. “We have some great managers (Jenni Hussong, Shelby Soderstrum, Ali Adams, Jane McKown) who are committed and are as much a part of the team as the middle hitters or defensive specialists. The training staff, led by our head athletic trainer Chris Viesselman, does a great job.”
The Dutch host only six matches this season, but Clayberg is excited for every opportunity to play at home.
“We love playing at home,” he said. “Playing in Kuyper Gymnasium is a magical feeling. Opposing coaches tell me it is the most fun and most difficult place to play. Officials tell me it is a great place to officiate a match and a great volleyball culture. It is fun for the women to play in front of their family and friends.
“The Central community has been great to Central volleyball. It is a big part of the identity of our program. It is a good culture around here. When opponents visit Kuyper, they are taking on not only the volleyball team, but Central as a whole. We appreciate the investment in our program.”
The Dutch open the 2013 season on Aug. 30 versus Pacific (Ore.) at the Molten Colorado College Invitational in Colorado Springs.