By: Tyler Korby, Pine Journal
CARLTON – In the technological age we’re in, most young teenagers these days wouldn’t mind spending an afternoon on their iPhone, perhaps Twitter or the ever-popular Facebook.
In Carlton, they like going to the gym.
The Bulldogs have a host of youngsters who enjoy playing volleyball. They like it so much that this summer, many of them had their mothers unlock the Carlton gym doors so they could play more often.
This fall, those enthusiastic players will be the backbone of the Bulldogs volleyball team.
“We have 11 freshmen and a bunch of eighth-graders,” said Carlton Coach Barb Soukkala during practice Tuesday. “We’re young.”
The Bulldogs only have two seniors – Alanna Groth and Marita Yellowhammer. They, along with freshman Grace Macor, are the only returning players with extensive varsity experience.
After two weeks of practice, that doesn’t seem to mean a thing.
“At the beginning, I said ‘Oh boy, this is going to be rough,’” recalled Groth, whose younger sister, eighth-grader Amanda, plays. “But these younger girls can pull their own weight. They’ve caught on to things fast, definitely a lot faster than I did when I was coming up.”
“They’re fun to be around,” she said. “We all have been working hard and improving a lot. But we still have a long way to go.”
The Bulldogs finished last fall sub-par at 13-14 and were bounced in the second round of the section playoffs. And although younger than some junior varsity teams, Soukkala figures her girls will be tough.
“I don’t know how many of them know it, but people look up to Carlton volleyball when we walk into the gym,” said Soukkala, having coached with the Bulldogs since 1977. “This is a big-time young group that is going to need a lot of playing time, but they’re picking things up quickly. We’ll see.”
Groth is confident.
“I think we’ll be right there and play with those tougher teams,” she said. “We’d definitely be struggling without these young kids. But once you get on the court, you kind of forget who’s in what grade.”
Carlton will play in their season opener Sept. 8 at home against Polar League rival Barnum.
Barnum young, serving strong
Mirroring Carlton, Barnum is also full of youth this fall and will look to put the pieces together around their pair of seniors.
Despite the graduation of all-around athlete and vocal leader Jessica Newman from last year’s bunch, senior setter Karianna Duesler and senior outside hitter Allainie Hanek-Siltanen will be expected to guide the Bombers this fall as the team’s only seniors. Junior middle hitter Kelsey Wickstrom and sophomore 6-footer Daron Mainville will also provide much-needed experience and depth to a team that finished 15-11 a year ago.
“We’ve got some work to do,” said eighth-year coach Corina Newman after Tuesday’s 3-0 home loss to Rush City to open the year. “First games are never the best, but our serving should be good. What we’ll need to work on is our communication and passing. We’re trying to find some leadership. We have a very young squad.”
Cromwell-Wright returns experience
Cromwell-Wright is expecting a trio of seniors to lead this fall.
Marlene Wester, MaKayleigh Cahoon and Brianna House will look to pace a Cardinals team that finished 15-13 a year ago and was the only Polar League squad to win a set from conference juggernaut Esko.
“We’re going to put a lot of weight on them,” said 16th-year coach Lori Wester of the trio. “But we’re all looking good right now. We have real good team chemistry and we even have a little more height than I am used to.”
Rebels have plenty to choose from
Just south, Moose Lake-Willow River will sport a new look this season, as Beckie Jackson enters her first year as a varsity volleyball coach.
Jackson, a former high school and collegiate volleyball player, took over for former coach Michael Edmond, and in the first couple weeks has had a blast with her young crew.
“It’s been fun so far,” Jackson said, noting they have 32 girls out for the program; however, 24 of which are underclassmen. “We have a lot of young girls, but we’re taking things day-by-day. Things are looking good.”
ML-WR closed last year 7-21 overall and opened this fall with a five-set loss at Hinckley-Finlayson Tuesday night. According to Jackson, lone senior Olivia Bennett, a middle hitter, as well as junior setters Miranda Jacobson and Erin Mollberg will keep the Rebels glued together.
South Ridge has lots of options
Unlike most, South Ridge is loaded with seniors. According to coach Brad Olesiak, the Panthers sport 12 seniors on a newly-formed school combining former AlBrook and Cotton school districts.
Big-swinging hitter Kourtney Karppinen will be the biggest threat for South Ridge, which will play its home matches at AlBrook High School until the new gym is ready to go. The Panthers will also look to senior setter Alyssa Johnson, senior middle hitters Kendra Dallmann and Kaylee Hage.
Adding in youthful experience from freshmen Mikayla Olesiak and Justice Janke, coach Olesiak (and Mikayla’s dad) thinks things are looking bright.
“We have a lot of depth and that’s a good thing,” said the fourth-year coach, noting his squad opened the year with a 3-2 win over McGregor. “We have a lot of balance. We’re working on rotations still, but we have a lot of options.”
Wrens aim to win this season
Although Wrenshall failed to win a single set last fall, losing all 17 matches, the Wrens are poised and ready for this season, returning five of their six starters from a young bunch a year ago.
Senior hitters Sam Oland and 6-foot basketball star Maria Burcar are back on the court, while sophomores Taylor Lund, Rachel Tyson and freshman Chloe Swanson all provide varsity experience for the Wrens.
With their summer involvement in the Esko League, coach Denise North is optimistic about her squad’s chances.
“We should be a lot more competitive in the Polar League,” said the 13th-year coach. “We’re playing pretty well here. I think we’ll be able to play with people.”
The Wrens opened their season with loss at Mountain Iron-Buhl Tuesday night.