By Dennis Morgan
ELGIN — When your team has produced the best season ever in the young history of Elgin Public/Pope John volleyball, what do you do for an encore?
That is exactly what Coach Tina Thiele-Blecher faces as the 2017 season beckons.
Fresh off a season where the Wolfpack were at one point top-ranked in Class D-1 and undefeated, the Wolfpack made their first trip ever to the State Volleyball Tournament and brought home the third-place trophy.
Last year’s team was loaded with senior leadership. Amy Nelson, Baylee Wemhoff and all-state selections Elizabeth Selting and Jordan Mescher have all departed, leaving the Wolfpack with roster spots to fill as a new season begins Saturday with exhibition matches against Diller-Odell and Giltner.
“We’re not going to replace those seniors, but we hope to find people to fill in and develop … We’re going to view those upcoming exhibition matches as a ‘measuring stick,’” Thiele-Blecher said. After Saturday’s matches, the team will have three practices before the regular season starts with a triangular at Chambers.
She said she hopes those exhibition matches, to be played at the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, will get the “first game jitters” out of the way for a number of Wolfpack players who now must step to the forefront and lead the way.
As practice continues, the coach said she’s still looking for the best combination of players to play on the court, moving around players to put them in the best position to succeed on the court.
Last year, the Wolfpack relied on a nine-person rotation to battle opponents and it was successful. Thiele-Blecher said she hopes to be able to do that again this year with primarily juniors and seniors. Seniors Paige Meis, Nickol Payne, Grace Henn, Lydia Behnk, Calli Krebs, Heather Bauer and juniors Allyson Wemhoff, Anna Heilhecker and Kaylee Martinsen all will play important roles in this year’s team, the coach said.
The highest jumper on the team may be Meis. “She jumps like no other,” her coach said. Whether as an outside hitter or middle, Meis will be an important cog in the team’s success this year. “She’s willing to do whatever we need.” Meis recorded 152 kills last season and 40 blocks.
Senior Nickol Payne knows the offense inside and out and will be the team’s setter. Last year she provided the Wolfpack another hitter to go to when opposing teams were concentrating their efforts on stopping EPPJ’s other hitters. Payne finished last sea with 46 kills and 145 set assists.
A setter on last year’s team, junior Allyson Wemhoff’s role on the team this year will be as a libero. Thiele-Blecher said.
“She’s the kind of player who never ever lets a ball drop,” she said of Wemhoff.
Last year Wemhoff recorded 270 set assists, second on the team.
A player who is being counted on as a leader this year will be senior Calli Krebs. One of the best servers on the team and a back row specialist last season, Krebs provides a lot of leadership, Thiele-Blecher said, “and a take control attitude on our team. I want that quality on the floor. I hope she can play some front row for us.” Krebs was third on the team one year ago in serve receive with 252 and recorded 29 ace serves.
Arguably the hardest hitter on the team is senior Grace Henn. Her coach said Henn has only gotten better as a hitter. “She sees the court so well and knows where the open spots are.” Last season, Henn had 225 kills.
The Wolfpack’s tallest player who will wreak havoc on the front row will be Behnk. When called on last year, she played well in the middle, both attacking and blocking. “Lydia would have been a starter at other NVC schools last year,” the coach said. “We were fortunate to have her on our team.”
For junior Anna Heilhecker, her coach said she will have “a presence on the court” either as a defensive specialist or in the front row following solid performances in summer camps. Heilhecker saw her minutes on the court increase towards the end of last season.
Two other players on the team, Heather Bauer and Kaylee Martinsen, will also see more playing time this season. Coach Thiele-Blecher said Bauer is one of the hardest working players on the team and can play anywhere on the front row. As for Martinsen, she is one of the best athletes on the team and has a strong “will to win.” She’ll likely see plenty of action as a middle hitter.
“I think the younger girls have bought into what the older girls know about how to be successful,” Thiele-Blecher said last week. “Parents play a big part, too.”
Those players form the nucleus of this year’s team, Thiele-Blecher said.
Last year, the Wolfpack were the “hunters,” seeking to make a name for themselves as one of the best teams in the state. This year will be different. EPPJ, the coach said, will be the “hunted.”
One team the Wolfpack has their eyes on is North Central who defeated them in the sub-district finals last year and could be the major obstacle between EPPJ and another trip to state. But, before any dreams of state can take hold, the Wolfpack will have to face the likes of O’Neill St. Mary’s and Chambers/Wheeler Central/Ewing.
“There’s a target on our backs after last year,” she said. “We’ve got the skills, if we can put it together, work as a team and trust each other, we’ll have a great season.” Assisting Thiele-Blecher this year will be assistant coaches Audrey Wondercheck and Sandi Henn.
By Dennis Morgan