New-look SPASH volleyball aims to contend
Portage County Gazette
By John Kemmeter
With a new head coach and several players stepping into larger roles, the Stevens Point Area Senior High School volleyball team will look to repeat as Wisconsin Valley Conference (WVC) Champions this season.
SPASH opened its season with the Panther Volleyball Invite at the SPASH Fieldhouse Tuesday, Aug. 27, where it went unbeaten in Pool Play to advance to the Championship, before it fell to De Pere to finish as the tournament runner-up.
“It’s a lot of new, but it still feels like a lot of the same,” said first-year SPASH volleyball head coach Molly Williams. “Being the JV coach the past couple of years, I’ve got to work with a lot of these girls, and now I’ve moved along with them.
“There are a lot of new people on the court, and we have some senior returners who have had playing time,” she said. “And we’re really looking forward to them continuing to step up.”
Last season, the Panthers won the WVC Title for the first time since 2000 and went on to advance to the WIAA Division 1 Sectional Finals, where their run came to an end with a loss to eventual State Semifinalist River Falls.
SPASH lost Honorable Mention All-State and Unanimous First Team All-WVC honorees in middle blocker Gabby Johnson and outside hitter Kayla Lass, as well as WVC selections in libero Megan Miklesh (First Team), setter Ashley Schrank (Second Team) and right side Allysa Deates (Honorable Mention).
Meanwhile, Williams took over as the head coach for Julie Johnson, who she played for at SPASH, where she was a teammate of current assistant coach Jordan (Gollon) Karnowski.
The Panthers are led this season by the return of Honorable Mention All-WVC senior middle blocker Maddy Dokken, who has moved to outside hitter, while seniors Merriah Niedfeldt and Miranda Rusin have seen time at setter.
“Maddy is a powerhouse and she is somebody that we can look to consistently to put the ball away,” said Williams. “But she really is just an all-around six-rotation player and leader, and she’s done an excellent job of helping the younger players get better as well.
“Merriah served more in a defensive specialist role last year, but she stepped up into that setter role a lot this summer, she’s got an awesome attitude and she’s very receptive to our hitters and really leads by example out on the floor,” she said. “Miranda’s probably one of the best team players I’ve been lucky to coach, the two of them push each other really hard, and each day they continue to get better that way.”
Also returning on varsity this season are a trio of senior defensive specialists in Olivia Stroik, Maggie Lawrynk and Taylor Hamerski.
“All three of them do an exceptional job,” said Williams. “Maggie’s been on varsity for three years, she’s moved all over the place, and now we’re trying her in the libero position, and she’s very scrappy and also a great team leader.
“Olivia is a very strong passer and technique-wise is outstanding, and she is somebody that’s hard to take off the court because she adds such an energy,” she said. “And then Taylor is a utility player, she can play left back, she can play right back, and she’s willing to do whatever she can to help the team, and she’s got an awesome serve.”
Junior Dylan Wall has also earned a starting spot as an outside hitter, with juniors Hilirie McLaughlin and Amahra Matthai at middle blocker, and junior Andrea Zwicker at right side.
Also in the mix for playing time are sophomore outside hitter/defensive specialist Maddy Miklesh, junior outside hitter Alyssa Standifer, senior middle blocker/outside hitter Faith Kitowski and junior right side Emma Deptula.
SPASH opened this season with its Panther Invite Tuesday, where it won 2-0 over Eau Claire Memorial (25-17, 27-25) to begin Pool Play, as Lawrynk totaled 30 digs and Niedfeldt had 21 assists.
The Panthers followed with a 2-0 win over Kewaunee (25-17, 25-18), as Dokken finished with 10 kills and 14 digs, and Niedfeldt handed out 24 assists.
Needing a win to finish unbeaten in Pool Play, SPASH swept Berlin 2-0 (25-18, 25-18), behind 11 digs from Stroik, and four kills from Matthai.
“We had a very strong Pool Play, really connected well with our hitters, and our serve receive was awesome,” said Williams. “Our biggest strength is probably our serving, and that really set us apart from other teams when we got to Pool Play.”
The win sent the Panthers to the Championship to face De Pere, where they got out to an early lead in the first set, before De Pere came back and eventually won 28-26.
De Pere followed with a 25-12 win in the second set to claim a 2-0 victory and the Tournament Championship, as Dokken had four kills, Lawrynk finished with eight digs, and Niedfeldt added eight assists to lead SPASH.
“We played a very talented De Pere team, and really had their number in the first set, and weren’t able to pull it out,” said Williams. “And I think then when we got to Game 2, mentally they got the best of us.
“There are a lot of things to learn from that match, and I’m looking forward to continuing to playing teams of that caliber, because I think more often than not, we will win those matches,” she said. “Unfortunately it didn’t work out today, but I’m very confident in my team being able to bounce back and compete at a high level.”
The Panthers are scheduled to compete in the Menomonie Volleyball Sprawl at the University of Wisconsin-Stout Friday and Saturday, Aug. 30 and 31, before they open the WVC season at D.C. Everest 7 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 5.
Last season SPASH finished 11-1 in the WVC to win the Conference Title over Wausau West (10-2), Merrill (9-3), Marshfield (4-8), D.C. Everest (3-9), Wausau East (3-9) and Wisconsin Rapids Lincoln (2-10).
“Across the board, there’s going to be a lot of changes in teams,” said Williams. “We got to see a few through summer-league play, I truly feel its anyone’s ballgame, and we’re eyeing for it, and we want it.
“Winning it last year, we’re looking to do back-to-back Conference Championships,” she said. “And I’ve got a team of girls who are doing anything they possibly can to try and reach that goal.”