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VOLLEYBALL PREVIEWS: County teams, FDLTCC start fall in rebuilding mode

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Wrenshall’s Cheyanne Carlson (21) and Barnum’s Mallory Agurkis (7) reach for the ball at the net during a close set of matches Tuesday night in Wrenshall. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com2 / 5
Wrenshall’s Emily Adkins hits the ball past Barnum defender Emily Miletich during Tuesday night’s match between the Wrens and the Bombers. Dan Saletel/news@pinejournal.com3 / 5
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Corina Newman hasn't coached volleyball in Barnum for several seasons, but when the Bombers came looking for a coach, the local farm owner dusted off her clipboard and whistle and got back in the gym.

Although a few warm-up rules have changed since Newman's last time on the sideline, Barnum's coach for almost a decade has returned and still has it.

"It's come back," she said with a laugh.

Newman's Bombers couldn't quite come back Tuesday in their season-opener on the road at Polar League host Wrenshall in a 15-25, 25-16, 25-23, 18-25, 11-15 defeat during a match that teeter-tottered throughout the evening.

Nonetheless, Newman remained upbeat when on the short bus ride home afterward. She stated this season will be "challenging" and the small school program is in the process of "rebuilding," but for a mother whose husband and both daughters and pair of sons grew up playing sports and coaching, it's not her first rodeo.

Corina's husband, Rich, is the school's basketball coach, and he also has assisted with football. Their daughters, Katrina and Jess played basketball at the University of Minnesota Duluth and now coach several sports, Katrina in Little Falls, Minn. and Jessica in Cloquet. Justin, meanwhile, is an electrician nowadays, but played multiple sports in high school. Their youngest, Brandon, is currently on the College of St. Scholastica men's basketball team. Athletics and their animal farm define the Newmans.

Newman also helps with food services with the elementary school in town, saying she had to be back at the school Wednesday morning by 6:30 a.m. Note that's much later than their alarms used to go off to milk the family's cows that they do not raise anymore.

Still, Newman, taking over for Ashley Palmer, is raising up the Bombers like she did before. As Barnum's third coach in the past four seasons, Newman admitted she is still getting to know the girls again, but with names like basketball standouts Emily Miletich, Mallory Agurkis, softball slasher Lea Peterson and hockey stars in Jessica and Jamie Bird, athletes aren't hard to come by. Newman just needs some time to pull the team together.

"They're all athletes, and we're trying to play as a group," Newman said. "It'll come."

So will Newman's memory. She often laughs when trying to keep track of her identical twin players, in the Birds.

"I'm just trying to tell them apart, let me tell you," chuckled Newman.

Megan Laine, meanwhile, was perhaps the Bombers' best option on the net, but the middle hitter is out with a knee injury. Agurkis is filling her role and she has never played before.

"They're working hard and we've seen some bright spots," said Newman of her young cast. "It's not now that's important, but just to keep getting better by the end of the season is what we're working for."

The same can be said about Wrenshall, but the Wrens aren't going to complain about getting a season- and home-opening victory in front of their fans Tuesday.

Coach Denise North, now in her 16th season at the tiny town, graduated five girls a season ago, including several standouts. For a small school such as Wrenshall, that's tough to take, meaning only nine girls are on North's varsity roster this fall, two of which are seniors, two juniors and the rest underclassmen.

"It's a really young group and low on the varsity experience," North said, "but it's a good group of girls and they work hard."

That was evident Tuesday when the Wrens trailed 2-1 and had just fallen by two points in the third set, but rallied to win the fourth handily and a decisive fifth. As always in the sport, cheers were evident after each point, but no points became bigger than in the last frame.

Sophomores Cheyanne Carlson and Emily Adkins were a big part of that, as Carlson collected 12 kills and Adkins seven, mixing around classmate Paige Johnson and senior Liberty Bauer's 10 set assists apiece. Carlson, Adkins and Johnson are a part of five sophomores who played Junior Olympic volleyball in the offseason and will surely contribute this fall.

Along with Bauer, Abbie Menze is the other senior, while Ryleen Oswskey and Chloe Olesen are the juniors.

Despite age or grade, North is expecting a handful of victories this season. They are off to a good start with their first, and North's game plan remains simplistic.

"We really just want them to get better every game," she said.

The same can be said around much of the area, but one program you know will certainly continue to improve would be Carlton. The Bulldogs have made four state appearances, including recent trips in 2013 and 2014. They advanced to the Section 7A final a season ago in a loss to undefeated Cook County and, despite a young cast, plan to return again.

"That's their goal," said coach Barb Soukkala, who began with the Bulldogs program in 1977 and hasn't left.

In hopes of a finals' reappearance this October, Soukkala will look to a handful of upperclassmen and what she said was "a bunch of freshmen" in her lineup.

Freshmen identical twins Brynne and Abby Mickle will see plenty of time, while classmates Taylor Nelson and Alaina Bennett will also be benefactors for the Bulldogs. Junior Alyson Hoeffling is also sure-handed moving from the right to the middle.

"They're doing OK," said Soukkala, always with the highest of expectations. "We have some very good athletes. A lot play two or even three sports."

Speaking of multiple sports, several recent graduates come back to play against Soukkala's group, including former standouts Hannah Benson, Macy Belich and Grace Macor just to name a few former state participants. It's a pretty good scout team that has helped increased the pace of play for Soukkala's bunch, while she noted her team's energy has improved.

"We got yelled it for making too much noise in the gym," Soukkala recalled with a laugh.  "They came and told us to be quiet."

Winning their first match of the year 3-2 at Deer River Tuesday, you can expect the Bulldogs to be anything but.

Cromwell-Wright has also gotten back to the hardwood this fall, splitting its first pair of matches with a 3-1 loss at Hill City Monday and 3-0 victory over Lakeview Christian Academy Tuesday. The Cardinals are again coached by Amy Granholm, now in her fifth season.

Granholm noted the team is young at spots, but has experience with players like juniors Cassidy Anderson, Alyssa Hoff and last names such as Hakamaki, Swatek and Suhonen littered throughout her lineup as family-tree athletes.

Yet, none are bigger than senior outside hitter Bailey Gronner, who — whether she’s in the front row or back — is always aggressively swinging and sprawling to keep the ball active.

"She is all over the place," said Granholm of Gronner, "she doesn't come off the court.

"They're hard workers, very coachable and a fun group," continued Granholm about her entire team. "We're hoping to play a lot of games."

South Ridge, too, want to play a lot, yet have to wait until next Thursday to see the court when they host Two Harbors. Coach Brad Olesiak is back for another season with the Panthers, and things will look a little different.

Graduating their "big three" of Mallory Thibault, Krystal Karppinen and Lindsey Janke last year, South Ridge will rely on a gang of teenagers with a mix of veterans and rookies.

Olesiak noted his graduates were the majority of their offense a fall ago.

"They had about 90-percent of the kills," he estimated. "We have some holes to fill."

Olesiak said several starters return including his daughter, sophomore Celia Olesiak, along with lone seniors in middle hitter Marriah Janke and all-over-the-floor libero Lily Price. Perhaps a little slow out of the gate for success unlike years past, the Panthers coach remains confident in his group who are itching to get playing.

"As a coach you want to see improvement and definitely since day one I have seen it already," Olesiak said. "We're pretty short and pretty young, but we have good balance and we'll put them in spots where they'll best succeed."

Like the Panthers, Fond du Lac Ojibwe also starts its season a next week. Longtime coach Dale Sautbine is alright with that, as he continues to build the small tribal school program he has coached at for now 32 years.

"I'll keep doing it until my body or my Superintendent tells me ‘no,’" said Sautbine with a laugh.

Sautbine counted 18 kids in the program, players are looking forward to beginning their schedule next Friday.

"They are eager to work hard and get in shape," Sautbine said. "We lost a lot of five-setters last year because we didn't have the stamina. We're going to try and correct that this year."

Certainly experience will help that and the Ogichidaag have plenty of it with returnees in senior McKenzie Angell, as well as a trio of juniors in Tamara Martineau, Katelynn Stapleton and Aaliyah Peterson, Sautbine said. Scheduled with also two invitational tournaments this year, FDL has its first home game Sept. 15.

"We're focusing on team building, support and effort," Sautbine said. "The girls are excited and working hard. It should be a fun, positive atmosphere."


One of the most positive coaches around is Laura Sylvester, now in her sixth season coaching at Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College with assistant Loran Wappes.

Sylvester said the Thunder sport eight players on their team, which began its season Wednesday evening hosting Central Lakes College as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.

"They are really fun girls who get along and want to get better as they go," Sylvester said, noting the next home game is set for Friday, Sept. 9 at the Lester Jack Briggs Cultural Center. "Every day has been fun seeing them progress."

According to Sylvester, none of her eight players are veterans of last season's 0-17 team or have any collegiate experience of any kind. The familiar county names in the orange and black are Courtney Ableiter of Carlton, Lexi Fanning of Moose Lake and Shelby Houle of Cloquet.

"They are all rookies ready to get their feet wet and make some waves," said Sylvester.