Three NCAA Div. III national titles
2015 record: 15-18 overall, 1-6 conference (seventh place)
Starters lost: 0 (including libero)
Starters returning: 7 (Jenna Dille, Madison Egger, Nicole Ewoldt, Kylie Gerstein, Mollie Mason, Emily McDonald, Melissa Miller)
Letterwinners lost/returning: 6/11
Iowa Conference titles (most recent): 17 (2007)
NCAA Division III tournament berths (most recent): 11 (2007)
Vastly inexperienced last fall, the Central College volleyball team is ready to return towards the top of the Iowa Conference.
A team that returned just two starters from the 2014 season struggled to a 15-18 record in 2015. A 1-6 mark in conference play kept the Dutch out of the league tournament for the first time in program history.
But with all six starters returning to the lineup in 2016 and six more letterwinners back on the roster, the inexperience has been negated.
“The negative of last year has now turned into a positive,” coach Kent Clayberg said. “Where experience was a weakness last year, it’s now a strength.
“Volleyball is a definitely a game where familiarity with each other is important. It breeds comfort, and in comfort there’s some confidence about what we are doing.”
The road still will not be easy in the Iowa Conference. Experience abounds around the league and Clayberg is preparing his team for the challenge.
“The conference as it was last year, is much the same as it will be this year,” he said. “We’re not the only team returning a lot of experience, but I still feel we are capable of vaulting back up to the top.”
In her first two seasons 5-foot, 11-inch junior outside hitter Mollie MasonÂ averaged 1.96 kills per set with a .219 attack percentage. Health problems have kept her off the court at times but Clayberg is optimistic about her season.
“She had some unusual injuries in her first two seasons that held her back,” he said. “It’d be nice to have a full and healthy season out of her.”
Classmate Kylie Gerstein (5-9) used her athleticism to her advantage in recording 2.04 kills per set as a sophomore.
“Kylie has the ability to be one of the more explosive players in the conference,” Clayberg said. ‘She has grown as a volleyball player and this could be her year.”
Senior Shannon Stuart (5-6) provides depth, leadership and character to the team.
“Shannon’s presence on the team is profound,” Clayberg said. “Her voice is very respected in the locker room and we would not be the same without her. “
Having gained valuable experience with the junior varsity squad as a freshman, Heidi Vanderholm (5-8) also adds depth.
An honorable mention all-league selection in 2015, 6-2 middle hitter Jenna Dille was sensational in her first season as a starter. She had 182 kills with a .307 attack percentage while defensively adding 69 blocks.
“Though she didn’t play much as a freshman, she really stepped into it last fall,” Clayberg said. “She’s growing in her confidence and the sky is the limit for her.”
Junior Emily McDonald (6-1) led the Dutch in both blocks (82) and kills (193) while playing in 110 of the team’s 111 sets. A middle hitter by trade, McDonald may find herself playing at other spots on the floor.
“Emily’s versatile enough to play in multiple positions,” Clayberg said. “She’s a chess piece that we’ll be able to move around and utilize in a multitude of ways.”
In limited action as a sophomore, junior Josie Youel (5-10) showed that she is worthy of varsity action if the situation arises.
“Being with the varsity last year was a strong step forward for her,” Clayberg said. “She’s a very physical athlete who is capable of doing some big things.”
Sophomore Melissa Miller (5-10) exploded onto the scene as a rookie, starting 27 of 33 matches while connecting on 153 kills. Heading into year two, Clayberg is looking to Miller for even more offense.
“She’s a very natural volleyball player who is reactive and instinctive,” Clayberg said. “She’ll obviously be much more comfortable with the rhythm of the offense in year two. I think her offensive growth is just going to continue to climb.”
Junior Ellie Stoakes (5-10) appeared in 16 matches and is poised to take on additional responsibilities by relying on her biggest strength.
“If we can get Ellie in the right place at the right time, she can be a terminator,” Clayberg said.Â “She can finish plays with her pure power.”
A junior varsity player her first two seasons, Keegan Flaherty (5-9) has shown marked improvement so far in her Central career.
“She made one of the more dramatic jumps from her freshman to sophomore year,” Clayberg said. “She’s starting to move more confidently and with a greater purpose.”
Entering last season with zero varsity experience on the roster at setter, it was trial by fire for Madison Egger (5-8), now a sophomore, and junior Regan Nelson (5-7). Egger started all 33 matches as a freshman and recorded 526 assists while Nelson played in 29 matches and had 299 assists.
“Madison is naturally a very gifted setter,” Clayberg said. “The offense we run is difficult to run but she started grasping how to maximize the efficiency of the hitters within the system.
“Regan is the ultimate team-builder. When you combine her mental strength and communication skills with developing physical ability, she’s going to be a capable setter.”
Sophomore Chapel Carter (5-8) impressed the coaching staff in the offseason as well.
“She had a great spring,” Clayberg said. “She’s definitely going to get into the mix.”
An outside hitter up until late last season, 5-8 senior Nicole EwoldtÂ makes the move to the back row full-time this year. She led the team with 425 digs in 2015.
“Nicole takes every attack as a personal challenge,” Clayberg said. “We need that kind of feistiness in the backcourt. I think she’ll really help us solidify our defense.”
Also moving back to a defensive spot is senior Gretchen Kistenmacher (5-7). She played sparingly as an outside hitter but could make a major impact in the back row.
“Gretchen is such a steady player,” Clayberg said. “If we can just let her focus on serve reception and defense, we’ll get a lot out of her.”
Junior Shelby Dash has worked her way through the junior varsity ranks and could step up to varsity this season.
“Shelby made some really nice gains last year,” Clayberg said. “I think she can do some good things again this year.”
Nine freshmen representing the states of Iowa, Illinois and Missouri will look to make an immediate impact.
“We are very excited about this freshman class,” Clayberg said. “We have a balanced blend of experience and potential that should provide both immediate and long-term impact at the varsity level.
A season-opening trip to New York Sept. 2-3 for a tournament at Clarkson University highlights the schedule. The slate also include tournaments in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Illinois.
“The trip to New York will provide a great measuring stick for us this year’s team as all four of our opponents were regionally ranked at the end of last season,” Clayberg said. “It can be a really good springboard into the season.”
The conference schedule includes a home match against newcomer Nebraska Wesleyan September 20, while Central also plays host to Loras and Dubuque on homecoming weekend.