Three NCAA Div. III national titles
2014 record: 21-10 overall, 4-3 Iowa Conference (fourth place)
Starters lost: 5 (including libero) (Dzenita Bahtic, Shantell Gish, Jessica Laflin, Claire Stewart, Hannah Welter)
Starters returning: 2 (Mollie Mason, Emily McDonald)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 10/9
Iowa Conference titles (most recent): 17 (2007)
NCAA Division III tournament berths (most recent): 11 (2007)
In year number three of an offensive system overhaul, the Central College volleyball team will turn to a young core of returners as it continues its ascension back to the top of the Iowa Conference.
After a disappointing 9-20 finish in 2012, coach Kent Clayberg decided to institute a new
offensive system. Knowing there were likely to be growing pains, he was optimistic the new approach would reap big rewards. Last year, the team finished with a 21-10 record and took fourth place the Iowa Conference. Heading into the third act, Clayberg believes even bigger rewards could be on the way.
“The offensive system that we put in two years was very much outside-the-box thinking,” Clayberg said. “When we first put it in the team had no idea what we trying to do. After a year in the system, the team had conceptualized it, grown into it, and we improved to 21-10. Now entering our third year, we feel like we’ll start to see some consistency come in. We’re going to be dangerous--how consistently dangerous we are is going to dictate whether we can control matches.”
Consistency can also be found in Central’s coaching staff. For the first time in Clayberg’s 18 years with the program, the exact same coaching staff will stay together in consecutive seasons, as Monica McWilliams, Tara Kohlhaas, Liz Sanders, and Travis Yets all return.
Despite being very young with just two seniors on the roster, Clayberg senses his team is a tight-knit group of athletes who enjoy playing together.
“The thing that I think is going to propel this team is ultimately its sense of purpose,” Clayberg said. “There’s a heart within this team that makes everyone willing to individually do what’s uncomfortable to propel the team. It’s a very cohesive group and I think they have a common picture of where they want to go collectively. The vision of what we could be is strong.”
Despite losing 10 letterwinners off last year’s team, Clayberg thinks this team can still compete in a league full of teams heavy on experience.
“It should be a pretty fascinating conference race,” Clayberg said. “Buena Vista, Coe and Wartburg were the top three teams in the league last year. Buena Vista’s got almost everybody back, they return far more offense than anybody else. You almost have to look at them as the favorite to win."
“Nobody in the league lost as much as we did. We lost all of our setters, half of our offense and a top defensive specialist. From the outside, it could look like a total rebuilding year for us, but I really don’t see it that way. I think we’re going to be really dangerous.”
Mollie Mason (5-11) proved to be an all-around player as a freshman. Mason was second on the team in kills per set (1.89) and digs per set (3.27). Mason has impressed the coaching staff with her composure and steadying influence on the court.
“Mollie is so poised and quietly confident,” Clayberg said. “She’s the picture of a peaceful yet very competitive player. Her confidence and ability to stay relaxed in tense situations is a huge asset on the court.”
After a strong spring season, Clayberg is excited to see what junior Nicole Ewoldt (5-9) can do at outside hitter. In limited action last season, Ewoldt contributed 1.04 kills per set and 2.26 digs per set.
“She brings a competitiveness that every team needs,” Clayberg said. “She’s going to be a real source of strength for us. She might be the best our passer on the team, so she not only brings us offense but she also brings us some defense.”
Kylie Gerstein (5-9) is another sophomore who gained some varsity experience as a freshman, collecting 79 kills, 45 digs, and 15 blocks. The coaches hope to see her make further strides in her second year.
“Kylie is uberexplosive,” Clayberg said. “She’s one of those hitters that you just like to watch hit because of how smooth she is. We can see her coming along and we think she’s going to overwhelm opponents before she’s done.”
Juniors Gretchen Kistenmacher (5-7) and Shannon Stuart (5-7), having acquired two years of junior varsity experience, will vie for time on the varsity level as well.
Sophomore middle hitter Emily McDonald (6-1) made her presence known early and often last season at the net. The conference leader with 0.96 blocks per set, McDonald blocked her way to an honorable mention all-conference season during her freshman campaign.
McDonald also contributed 1.62 kills per set on offense. With a full season under her belt, Clayberg believes McDonald can reach even greater heights this season.
“She has no idea how good she can be,” he said. “We knew coming in that she was going to be a force on defense. She was so good at the net last year. The offensive transition from high school to college took her a little while to catch up, but we feel like she’s improved greatly there as well. Central has a long history of dominant middle hitters and we think she could be next in line for that.”
Fellow sophomore Jenna Dille (6-2) will seek more playing time this fall after connecting on 10 kills and 4 blocks despite playing in just four sets a year ago.
“Jenna has incredibly fast hands and very quick acceleration,” Clayberg said. “She has that innate sense of timing that makes her a really good blocker.”
Josie Youel and Maegan Bruene are also sophomores who Clayberg says have shown varsity potential and will look to make the move up from the junior varsity team.
The team leader with 2.24 kills per set last season, Emily Stoakes (6-0) returns to the starting role on the right-side. Stoakes, a senior, also chipped in 0.42 blocks per set for the Dutch last season.
“Her impact on our team prior to last year was being able to hit pretty hard in certain situations,” Clayberg said. “She was always a threat that you had to account for. Last year, we really saw her become a complete player and leader, both offensively and defensively. She impacted the way opposing outside hitters would swing.”
Central’s only other senior, Hannah Laflin (6-0), may see time at either right-side hitter or middle hitter, depending on where she’s needed most. Injuries have prevented Laflin from completing a full season and has limited her to just nine matches played in three years.
“Hannah offers great versatility to us whether she plays middle or right side,” Clayberg said.
“She’s versatile enough that we could use her at any front row position. She’s a senior leader who has been through some things and she’ll get a chance to start this season.”
The younger Stoakes sister, Ellie (5-10), is another front-row player who could find herself at either middle or right-side hitter. Clayberg is impressed with the sophomore’s strength and is excited to see what she can do on the varsity level.
“She has devastating power,” he said. “She’s probably the most powerful hitter we have had since maybe (1998 and 1999 national player of the year) Abbie Brown. She can really punch it. We’re still trying to figure out what the best place for her is.”
Other options at this spot include junior Alex Koolmees and sophomore Keegan Flaherty, both experienced junior varsity players.
There are no returning letterwinners at the setter position, and the setters on the roster have never even played in a varsity match.
The position obviously became a point of emphasis on the recruiting trail. But the Dutch do have 5-6 sophomores Regan Nelson and Regan Sharp returning and they got plenty of action on the junior varsity team. Experience not only at the collegiate level, but also in Central’s offense could give the duo an edge.
“With their experience running the system, we think both Regans could step in and do a great job,” Clayberg said.
If needed, the Dutch could also turn to Emily Stoakes, a setter in high school. but several incoming freshmen could make that switch unnecessary. They might push for playing time.
“We have some talented athletes coming in and we have some good experienced players who understand our system in-house,” Clayberg said. “What people are looking at as a question mark, should end up being a strength for us.”
The Dutch will be looking for a new libero after the graduation of two-time all-conference performer Dzenita Bahtic, The early favorite to replace Bahtic will be sophomore Tara Tralewski (5-5), who registered 2.96 digs per set in 2014.
“Tara is a very gifted and very aware defensive player,” Clayberg said. “After being in our system for a year, we think she’ll be at a comfort level where we can plug her it in at libero and feel good about it.”
Fellow sophomores Alyssa McGhee (5-5) and Liv Cotton (5-1) both gained valuable experience at the junior varsity level as freshmen. Despite not having seen any varsity action, Clayberg likes where they are at heading into the season.
“Alyssa and Liv made some huge strides last spring,” he said. “Those two are going to be pushing for varsity spots.”
Sophomores Shelby Dash (5-7) and Julie Grether (5-7) are other returners who could factor in at the position.
After bringing in an oversized 24-member recruiting class a year ago, this year’s group features just seven newcomers. While much smaller than last year’s group, Clayberg sees this class as providing an added sense of maturity.
“It’s a small but talented group,” Clayberg said. “They’re experienced after having played at high levels on the club circuit. They are a very smart and self-aware group. They’re going to bring presence beyond what you would typically see from freshmen.”
The 2015 campaign includes five tournaments and two triangulars, all seven played in Illinois or Wisconsin. The tournament schedule is highlighted by a trip to Decatur, Illinois for the Linda Slagell Classic hosted by Millkin University. Central will face Millikin, Washington (Mo.), and Wis.-Oshkosh, all teams that were ranked at least once last season.
“It’s going to be a stiffer schedule than we had a year ago,” Clayberg said. “We felt like it was time for us to gear forward and get back into the circuit of competing against top-20 teams. Millikin is going to be a loaded tournament with the teams they have coming in.”
In addition to their seven conference matches, the Dutch will also have three non-conference matches, including the season opener at home on September 1 against Monmouth (Ill.).