Last year marked one of the better volleyball races in recent NIC-10 history, with three teams in the hunt all the way down to the last week of the season.
Hononegah and North were tied for first, with Guilford sitting one game back before the Vikings defeated the Indians for the second time to put the Blue Thunder alone at the top. North then closed things with a win over Belvidere for their 14th consecutive victory and first outright NIC-10 title.
Then came the surprising shakeup, as North coach Nicole Miller was let go in February. But the Blue Thunder filled the vacancy quickly and with quality, nabbing former four-time NIC-10 Coach of the Year Amanda Carlson to take over the reins. Carlson, who spent nine seasons with Boylan and the last two at Lutheran, takes over a deep and talented team that features two Div. I recruits in Brookelyn Messenger and Peyton Sewell. That makes North the favorites once again.
However it will still be another tight race at the top, as Hononegah – which knocked North out of the postseason last year – returns eight starters from its 13-3 team. And Guilford and Harlem boast enough talent to threaten.
Here is a capsule look at the NIC-10 volleyball season in predicted order of finish:
North Blue Thunder
Coach: Amanda Carlson (1st season)
Last year: 1st in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Brookelyn Messenger (SR, OH), Peyton Sewell (SE, S), Alexandra Wis (SR, MB), Ella Ruder (JR, DS), Mikayla Gavina (JR, MB)
Key Newcomers: Bryn Cottrell (SR, OPP), Emma Carpenter (SR, DS), Josie JOhnson (SR, OH), Sam Baker (JR, DS), Macy Oldani (JR, DS), Rachel Scott (FR, OPP/MB), Kaitlin Leider (FR, OH), Abigail Stegman (JR, S), Liz Wirth (SR, S)
Strengths: Deep at every position and deep in experience; Strong senior class
Weaknesses: How will they fair playing at a high level consistently.
Analysis: Led by two Div. I recruits in Brookelyn Messenger (Air Force Academy) and Peyton Sewell (Western Illinois), the deep and talented Blue Thunder are favored to collect their third straight conference crown. With three other starters back, first-year coach Amanda Carlson – who had success with Boylan and Lutheran – steps into an ideal situation. “We have high expectations,” she said, “and we know that we need to play at a very high level consistently with poise and confidence if we want to meet and exceed our own internal expectations.”
Coach: Kaylee Libby (6th season)
Last year: 2nd in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Lilly Littlefield (SR, S/Def.), Natalie St. John (SR, OH), Holly Janowski (SR, RS), Sarah Steinmetz (SR, MB), Rachel Rivers (SR, RS), Olivia Taylor (JR, DS), Alexis Lewis (SO, MB), McKenzie Kidd (JR, OH)
Key Newcomers: Anna Tapia (JR, S), McKaylee Kidd (JR, DS/OH), Jade Hoper (SO, OH), Emma Schroeder (FR, MB), Katie Durham (JR, Def.), Kelsey Himes (JR, S), Amy Jones (JR, MB)
Strengths: Depth at all positions; Upperclassmen leadership; 8 players back from last year’s roster.
Analysis: After taking second in a hotly-contested NIC-10 race last season, the Indians are again contenders for the title. With eight experienced players back, led by Special Mention all-NIC-10 selection McKenzie Kidd, and a tough nonconference schedule, Hononegah has a solid shot at a league title.
Coach: Julian Jacques (4th season)
Last year: 3rd in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Katelyn Keefe (SR, O), Kate Flynn (SO, O), Alivia Hughes (JR, M)
Key Newcomers: Alexis Erickson (SO, O), Girana Worathepnuthas (SR, S), Ella Holmstrom (FR, OH), Ayanna Manikham (FR, MB)
Strengths: Decent height; Strong athletically.
Analysis: The Vikings should be contenders again this season, led by first-team all-NIC-10 pick Kailtyn Keefe. Coach Jacques says he has a team that will be “fun to watch” with many athletic and dynamic players.
Coach: Ashley Cerasa
Last year: 4th in the NIC-10
Top Returners: Emily Johnson (SR, OH), Brooke Mirshak (SR, Lib), Sarah Smith (SR, MB), Airanna Mohr (SR, S)
Key Newcomers: Emily Fabert (JR, OH)
Analysis: The Huskies lost three all-NIC-10 players to graduation from a squad that went 11-5 in conference play. The key is how the young players step in and cover for that loss. Harlem might drop a spot in the NIC-10, but a solid senior class will make sure that fall is a very small one.
Coach: Tom Lynde (1st season)
Last year: 5th in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Sadie Becker (JR, Libero), Ava Vitale (SR, S), Kyla Cleckner (SO, OH), Sophia Walter (SO, RS/MH), Kaitlyn Lee (JR, OS), Terese Winkleman (JR, DS), Janaie Wickson (SR, MH)
Key Newcomers: Brooklyn Young (JR, MH), Giann aBerg (JR, OS), Kaitlynn Libricz (SR, DS), Carissa Stear (SR, DS), kate Shields (FR (S/RS)
Strengths: Strong defense; Good mix of players led by strong setter position
Analysis: Led by first-team all-NIC-10 setter Ava Vitale, the Titans boast a strong lineup that features seven returning starters from last year’s 10-6 team. Defense will also be one of Boylan’s strong suits, making the Titans an upper-division team again but maybe not quite strong enough to take the title.
Coach: Sarah Swords (5th season)
Last year: 6th in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Josie Bunker (SR, OH), Kristin Koehn (SR, S), Holly Dewall (SR, OH), Abby Smith (SR, Lib), Ahlasia Kloepping (SR, M), Riley Kleckler (SR, M)
Strengths: Strong, athletic senior class; Great leadership
Analysis: Coach Swords said last year’s team had trouble putting teams away late. But with six key players back, that experience should greatly reduce that problem. The Pretzels, led by first-team all-NIC-10 setter Kristin Koehn, should finish in the top half.
Coach: Abby Sackmaster (6th season)
Last year: 7th in NIC-10
Returning starters: Kerrigan Turek (JR. MB); Brianna Syphommarath (JR, OH), Visouda Phounsavath (SR, S/MB); Maddi Habben (SR, OH)
Key Newcomers: Jenny Martinez (JR, Def.); Hailey Hunter (JR, S)
Strengths: Effort and positive attitude
Analysis: The E-Rabs bring back four starters from last year’s 5-11 team, which means they could take a step or two up from their seventh-place finish. But an inexperienced squad might not show its true colors until later in the season.
Coach: Jan Ford (11th season)
Last year: 10th in the NIC-10
Returning Starters: Sydney Erwin (SR); Elaina Murray (SR). Lauren Bonavia (SR); Taryn Russey (SR); Maya Panda (JR);
Other Key Players: Bryana Meyers (SR); Madisen Perry (JR): Saidee Delevan (SO); Keeley Alexander (SR); Cynthia Orenday (JR); Jeleyana Fichtner (SO)
Analysis: The Knights have quite a bit of experience back and could prove to be the darkhose of the league. North coach Carlson, after seeing the Knights in the summer leagues, called Auburn a “surprise team.”
Coach: Andy Kownacki (1st season)
Last year: 8th in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Peyton Bruneau (JR), Montana Morris (SR), Emily Jungels (SR)
Key Newcomers: Quinn Yerk (SR), Grace Haug (JR), Maria Zepeda (JR), Payton Breneau (JR), Meadow Cox (SO)
Strengths: Serving; Service receiving; Defense
Weaknesses: Young team
Analysis: Peyton Bruneau earned Special Mention all-NIC-10 honors last season and will lead a Bucs team that has talent at the top, but also a lot of youth and inexperience. Bruneau is one of only three returning starters from last year’s 3-13 squad. First-year coach Kownacki did like the growth he saw over the summer and looks at this as a team that will be substantially stronger by the end of the season.
Coach: Angie Cleaver (3rd season)
Last year: 9th in the NIC-10
Returning starters: Tayjia Jordan (SR, OH/S), Isabel Avila (SR, OH/S), Mikayla Land (JR, MH/RS)
Key Newcomers: Camron Blank (SO, OH)
Strengths: Experienced hitters; Hard working
Weaknesses: Passing; Setter position
Analysis: Jefferson has strong outside hitting with Tayjia Jordan, Isabel Avila and Camron Blank, but a lack of experience overall on the team will keep the J-Hawks in the lower half of the NIC-10.