Three NCAA Div. III national titles
PELLA — The true test for any team is how it plays and navigates through adversity.
The Central College volleyball program faced more than its fair share of adversity in 2013 but grew because of it.
After posting a 13-19 overall mark and a 2-5 record in Iowa Conference play in 2013, the Dutch have emerged as a stronger and deeper team in 2014, with some credit going to those rocky experiences.
“We are very optimistic and excited about the personnel that we have coming back,” said coach Kent Clayberg, who begins his 17th season with the Dutch. “We learned a great deal about the nuances of running this offense last year. We had to learn on the fly, and we took some bumps and bruises along the way because of it. Last year was a challenge, yet we ended the season winning five matches in a row and seven of our last nine, including our last tournament, so you started to see a developing confidence. That growth was very evident in the spring.”
Central’s transition at the end of last fall and during the spring of this year has Clayberg optimistic that his team is headed in the right direction.
“Just having that shared experience—the early struggles, the light bulbs beginning to click on, and then coming together and experiencing some success really paid off, too,” he said. “We’re going to come in with more confidence than you would expect from a team that had the record that we had. Our team culture and team chemistry is going to be an absolute strength. We’ve struggled; we’ve overcome; and we have reason to be optimistic. I really believe that this is going to be a breakout year not only for these players but for Central volleyball as whole.”
To complement Central’s returning experience, Clayberg bringing in his largest recruiting class ever with 24 incoming freshmen.
“This is a very large, and a very talented class,” he said. “The class is balanced, and will allow us to fill gaps at every position. These freshmen are going to come in and challenge for playing time.”
Clayberg likes his team’s chances this fall in what figures to be a more balanced league.
“The conference was really pretty young last season, as most teams are returning the bulk of their starting units,” Clayberg said. “I think most people will probably look at Wartburg and Coe in the preseason, but I believe there are going to be several schools making strong pushes. I think we have as good a shot as any of these teams to win the conference.”
A pair of three-year letterwinners in seniors Sara Snead and Jessica Laflin return at outside hitter. At 5-foot-11, Snead started in 20 of the 32 matches she played in last year, ranking second on the team in kills (225) and kills per set (2.14). Laflin (6-0), who missed the last third of the season with an injury, started 16 matches, ranking fifth in kills (161) and third in kills per set (2.12).
“I would say that the outside hitter position might be the deepest position on our team,” Clayberg said. “We’ve got a lot of experience returning and we’ve got a nice blend of overall possession-type players. We’ve also got some explosive hitters from our senior class on down, so we’ll have a lot of different options. Outside hitter is a position where we might explore moving some players around to maximize their abilities.
“Both Sara and Jessica are long and emotionally steady volleyball players who we think are going to have a nice senior year.”
Sophomore Nicole Ewoldt (5-8) took over Laflin’s role following the injury and recorded 100 kills in 27 matches to help earn her the team’s Outstanding Freshman Award.
“Nicole stepped in after Jessica went down and played beyond her years,” Clayberg said. “She got some great experience last fall, so we kind of feel like we have three returning starters at the outside. Nicole is a gamer who likes to compete.”
The MVP of the JV program last year, Gretchen Kistenmacher (5-7) will also make a push for varsity playing time this fall.
Senior Shantell Gish (5-9) and sophomore Katie Roling (5-11) are back in the middle. A 2013 academic all-conference member and recipient of the team’s Most Improved Player Award last year, Gish completed her first full varsity season in 2013. Gish started in the middle in 17 of the 31 matches she played in, registering 104 kills, a .185 attack percentage and 46 total blocks. Roling lettered during her freshman campaign and transitioned from a right-side hitter to the middle. She played in 10 matches, posting 10 kills and six total blocks.
“Shantell isn’t the traditional long, middle hitter, but rather more of a quick-twitch, explosive middle that relies more on speed than length. But that fits our offense quite well,” Clayberg said. “Katie made the position switch from right side to middle last year and really did some nice things there. Katie is a physical player with great potential; we’re looking for big things from her this fall.”
Juniors Hannah Laflin (6-0) and Susan Elder (5-11) will both vie for time in the middle as well.
“Hannah missed the bulk of last year with the back injury, but we’re hoping to get her back into the swing of things,” Clayberg. “Susan is another player who has been on the JV team the last couple of years but will be making a push for varsity time this season.”
Starting experience can also be found on the right side as Central returns senior Hannah Welter and junior Emily Stoakes.
A three-year letterwinner, Welter (6-2) led the Dutch in kills (235) last fall, averaging 2.04 kills per set while posting a .203 attack percentage. Welter also posted team-bests in blocks assists (62) and total blocks (79), averaging 0.69 blocks per set.
Lettering for the first time in 2013, Stoakes (5-11) made the most of her first full season with the varsity squad, ranking third on the team in kills (167) while averaging 1.58 kills per set with a .187 attack percentage over 32 matches. The junior also tallied 29 block assists and 37 total blocks.
“Emily and Hannah are two very, very strong right-side players,” Clayberg said. “They’re both imposing blockers and both can pack a punch. We’re feeling awfully good about the right side of our net.”
Jennie Voss (5-9), who has spent the previous two seasons with the JV team, will also be in the mix for varsity time this fall.
The Dutch return three players who saw starting time last year at setter, with seniors Claire Stewart and Jill Schildroth and sophomore Madison Maddox.
A three-year starter, Schildroth (5-8) missed much of last fall with a leg injury, leaving Stewart and Maddox to split time in her absence. An academic all-conference member, Stewart (5-7) finished seventh in the league in assists with 689 (6.21 per set) last year, while Maddox, who saw action in 19 matches, contributed 235 assists to go along with 23 service aces.
“Jill earned a starting position at setter in each of the last couple years, but had the bulk of both seasons wiped out due to an injury,” Clayberg said. ‘We’re hoping to get her back healthy this year. She deserves a full season.
“Claire started alongside Jill during their sophomore seasons in our 6-2 offense and carried the load on her own when Jill got hurt. Claire had a lot put on her, and she has grown into an excellent setter and leader. They’re two different types of setters, but they’re both very capable and both very strong leaders. I am fully confident in them, and yet the setter group is further bolstered by the return of Madii, who filled in for Jill at that No. 2 spot a year ago and played quite well as a freshman. Setter is another position where we feel like we essentially have three starters returning. We run a very difficult offense that requires very smart and athletic players and we have that with Claire, Jill and Madii.”
Central returns both defensive specialists from last year, including senior and 2013 first team all-conference libero Dzenita Bahtic. Two-year starter Tori Zempel also returns to round out a quality defensive back row.
“Our defensive group is outstanding. They are the foundation we’re building this offense on,” Clayberg said.
In her first season as Central’s libero, Bahtic tallied 555 digs and led the league in digs per set (5.14), while Zempel, a junior, recorded 416 digs and ranked seventh in the conference in digs per set (3.59). Bahtic also ranked second on the team in service aces (26).
“Tori and Dzenita are two very balanced and very strong defensive players,” Clayberg said. “With Tori and Dzenita taking the majority of our first contacts, we’re going to be able to run just about anything we want to.”
The Dutch will compete in six tournaments this fall, beginning with the Averett (Va.) Cougar Classic (Aug. 30-31) in Danville, Va.
“Virginia is a new destination for us and it has been quite some time since we’ve played in that part of the country,” Clayberg said. “We’re excited about this fall’s schedule and are looking forward to the challenges that await.”
Central opens its five-match home schedule Sept. 9 against Iowa Wesleyan. The Dutch begin conference play Sept. 18 at Buena Vista.