The Northland Pines volleyball team will try to improve on its fourth-place finish in the Great Northern Conference (GNC) last season as the 2018 season gets underway.

The Eagles were 6-6 in conference matches last season and 22-15 overall, but the Eagles have eight returning letterwinners this fall and look to improve on those marks.

Pines lost three key players to graduation, including Hadley Kruse, Kirsten Lindemann and Daleigh Neveaux, according to Pines coach Julie Smith.

“Hadley will be missed for her leadership and her quickness and smart play on the court. She was our 5-1 setter and we will be filling this void with two setters until one mentally strong and quick setter is identified,” said Smith.

“Kirsten will be missed for her energy and enthusiasm that kept the group moving towards developing a positive and enthusiastic culture in the program. There are girls that have a similar spirit and will need to gain the confidence to step up and lead the program on in that way,” said Smith.

“Daleigh was a silent leader and had such court awareness and ability that made her the most versatile senior. Daleigh will be missed as she was a player that could be relied on at the net, in the back row and serving,” said Smith. 

Returning letterwinners include seniors Taylor Olivotti, Cameron Ramesh, Jennifer Pyne, Nicole Popp, Lauren Grosskopf and Emily McGee; junior Jacqueline Smith; and sophomore Lily Bontrager.

Last season, Jacqueline Smith was selected GNC first team offensive most valuable player and was All-State honorable mention.

“Jacqueline will be continuing her role as a six-rotation player. She is a strong outside and back row attacker, top server and good defender in the back row. She has the ability to offensively play smart and read opponents well while on defense. Jacqueline is a very versatile player that we will be able to count on for being a playmaker,” said coach Smith.

“Cameron may also continue as a six-rotation player. Her strong attribute is her defensive ability. Her back row play was getting real strong at the end of last season and did not peak yet, so we’re hoping that Cameron can start where she left off with her defensive play,” said Smith.

“Pyne has had great improvement in her net play and back row play. Where she is placed is a safe bet because she does both well. We’re looking forward to more consistency as her court awareness matures and we will be seeing good things from Jennifer this season,” said Smith.

“Taylor will continue to block middle for us at the net. She was getting stronger in her blocking towards the end of the season last year and now already in practices we’re seeing a more consistent attack that will be beneficial to our offense,” said Smith.

“Lauren will come back as our first setter to fill a portion of Hadley’s role. Lauren will contribute her quickness and ability to think on the fly to prepare an offense for our attackers. If you ask Lauren, she would say to put her on defense, because that is where she performs very well,” said Smith. “At this time she is one of our top setters and we will use her in that position until another setter is identified. Lauren is also a very versatile player.

“Emily will be at the net blocking middle again this season. She has been a strong blocker and server for us and we look forward to seeing what she does this season,” said Smith.

“Nicole is recovering from a knee injury and hope to see her cleared to play at the beginning of September. She was our libero last season and we will see how her strength is coming back from her injury,” said Smith.

“Lily will be coming in as our libero to start off the season. She has been working hard all off-season to develop herself and prepare for this. We are excited to see how she takes on this role,” said Smith.

Smith said the Eagles’ biggest challenge to start the season is the lack of communication on the court. 

Assisting Smith with building the Eagles are junior varsity coach Krista Wittkopf and junior varsity 2 coach Rachel Dreger.

Smith sees Mosinee, Medford and Antigo as the projected tough matches this season. 

“Those teams all play club volleyball together in the off season, which makes a big difference in season competitions,” said Smith.

Early action

The Eagles opened the season with invitationals at UW-Oshkosh and Wisconsin Rapids. 

Last Saturday, Pines took second place at the Cobleigh Invitational in Wisconsin Rapids. The Eagles lost to Rapids 1-2 (18-25, 25-18 and 8-15); defeated Necedah 2-0 (27-25 and 25-19); defeated Colby 2-0 (25-19 and 25-14); defeated Abbotsford 2-0 (25-23 and 28-26); and lost to Fox Valley Lutheran 0-2 (17-25 and 23-25). Fox Valley Lutheran was the first-place finisher.

At the Khaos at the Kolf Tournament at UW-Oshkosh last Tuesday, Pines took 15th place out of 34 teams.

Pines will open the GNC season at Medford this Thursday, Aug. 30, at 7 p.m. The Eagles’ first home game will be next Thursday, Sept. 6, against Antigo at 7 p.m.