PROCTOR—During Monday's Section 7AA volleyball scrimmage at Proctor High School, area teams took to the court for a time of preparation. No official uniforms were worn, no referees were in sight and no scores were taken.
Unless you were watching Hannah Stark, of course.
The right-handed Esko senior made it clear to those in attendance that the Eskomos were excited for the upcoming season, often celebrating after the outside hitter scored point, after point, after point.
"She can put it where she wants it," Esko coach Desiree DeLeon said of Stark between matches on Monday. "She gets the most balls. That's exactly where we want her."
"You want to get a swing on everything and put it away when you can, but you have to make smart decisions too," said the 5-foot-10 Stark just before her team played Hermantown.
It's certainly a smart decision to like the Eskomos this fall. Despite graduating a quartet of athletes from last year's 15-12 team — including Judy Wagemaker, now playing at St. Scholastica — Esko enters this go-round with plenty of floor experience.
Along with Stark on the outside, DeLeon, will also lean on fellow hitters in 6-foot-1 junior Bridget Yellin and freshman Taiya Gregg, already in her second year of varsity. Senior Emilee Wilson — the town's ace softball pitcher — will also contribute mightily, as well as classmate Marais Houser, at setter.
Houser has been on the varsity for what seems like forever. Her upbeat and charismatic attitude — often jumping up-and-down after her team wins rallies — tabs her as the team's floor general.
"She's a natural leader," said Stark of her teammate.
DeLeon, whose sophomore daughter Dea is also back as another returnee, agreed. Adding that Houser is perfect for their offensive-minded system, DeLeon said that she will have plenty of options to deliver the ball to. Stark, Yellin, Gregg, Wilson — all of whom are often on the attack.
"We've got swingers," said DeLeon, a 13-year-veteran whose team begins its season tonight, Thursday, Aug. 24, at Hibbing.
Neighboring Cloquet has its share of swinging offensive weapons, as well. The two played Monday in Proctor, exchanging plenty of rips, as both schools scrimmaged productively. The Lumberjacks and Eskomos officially engage on Sept. 26 in Cloquet's brand-new middle school gym.
Speaking of the new school, the Lumberjacks hope to play in their spiffy new venue when they open the season Tuesday, hosting Duluth East at 7 p.m. If not, the match will be held in the high school gymnasium.
"It is easy to get distracted with the changes like the new gym, equipment and uniforms," said coach Heidi Anderson, entering her 14th season. "But this group is learning the importance of staying focused and using their experience from last year."
That year, which included a 4-23 record, was a struggle at times. Anderson said she returns 10 girls to her varsity, including seniors Morgan Walsh, Lily Sinkkonen, Tess Kavanaugh and Payton Anderson. Juniors Josie Steen and the hard-swinging Savannah Sears also are varsity veterans.
"Their volleyball IQ continues to improve on a daily basis," said Anderson. "They love to play the game."
The same can be said about the girls at Moose Lake-Willow River and their coach Beckie Jackson, now in her seventh season on the Rebels' sideline.
In fact, Jackson, a social studies teacher within the district, spent January through June in Botswana doing educational research. Jackson loves volleyball so much that she spent her free time teaching the sport in the small south African nation.
Now back in northern Minnesota, Jackson couldn't be more thrilled about the upcoming fall. Like Cloquet, ML-WR will also play in a brand-new gym. Beginning the season Tuesday at Hinckley-Finlayson, their first home match will be next Thursday against Two Harbors.
Looking to build off of a 13-14 campaign last fall, Jackson said they will miss longtime veterans Ally Bode and Sage Gerard, but will look to lean on returnees Josie Benzie, DonnaMae Smith, Ruby Mohelsky and Maddie Olson.
Elsewhere in the Polar League, Cromwell-Wright will also look to fill holes, according to Amy Granholm, as the fifth-year coach noted the graduation of Bailey Gronner, Chelsea Swatek and Samantha Fisher.
"Those are holes we need to fill," Granholm said earlier this week, adding that cousins Taya and Shaily Hakamaki are back, along with Cassidy Anderson, Alyssa Hoff and Jen Suhonen.
In fact, both Hakamakis and Anderson were all starters, giving the traditional on-the-floor Cardinals a good start to a squad that was 16-8 a year ago and begins its season next Monday at Hill City.
"Our goal is to be as scrappy as we have been and continue to work as a team," Granholm said. "These girls are a good group. And I'm very eager to see where they'll take us."
Over in Barnum, Corinna Newman is hoping her Bombers will build on their experience, as the longtime coach, now in her 11th season, returns everyone to her starting roster.
Senior captains Megan Laine, Lea Peterson and Emily Miletich lead the way, along with fellow veterans Mallory Agurkis, Lexie Bonneville and Megan Liimatainen. That said, Barnum, which went 6-18 a season ago, will certainly look to flip the script.
"We've got a full squad," said Newman, despite not seeing her team play at the Polar League jamboree last week, as they didn't attend.
"I had so many girls at the fair," Newman said with a chuckle.
Their season-opener won't be any laughing matter, however, as two-time Section 7A champion Cook County comes to town next Thursday in Barnum.
"They're going to give us a good view and what we're up against," said Newman, noting there's not a better measuring stick.
Carlton may have other thoughts, as the Bulldogs bring back seemingly everyone to a high-octane offense and strong program led by longtime coach Barb Soukkala, on their sideline since 1977.
Soukkala sees the return of nearly her entire starting cast this fall, including twins Abby and Brynne Mickle, Ally Hoeffling, Taylor Nelson, Alaina Bennett, Nicole Nilsen, Tiara Larsen and Deanna Wallin. All eight have seen plenty of court time and are looking to up their gaudy 21-10 mark from last season that ended too soon against Deer River in the semifinals. In 2015, the Bulldogs made the final, while in 2013 and 2014 they advanced to the Class A state tournament.
Soukkala said she's not sure if this group matches up with her state-qualifying teams of the past, but time will tell. She noted her girls can hit both front row and back and have no hesitation on swinging. They are also another year older.
"The whole crew is back," Soukkala said. "And they're not eighth-graders anymore."
Intriguingly, they host Deer River Tuesday in must-see small school matchup right off the bat.
Wrenshall will face rival Carlton next Thursday, as the Wrens welcome in new coach Amy Bentow. Bentow played at Concordia College in Moorhead, but has since moved eastward and is excited to take over the Wrens, a squad that finished last fall 9-17.
Cheyanne Carlson, Emily Adkins, Paige Johnson, Jenna Johnson and Abby Belcastro are all experienced options for the Wrens, who open at Lakeview Christian Academy next Tuesday. Two days later, they'll host the Bulldogs.
"I'm really looking forward to it," said Bentow, 21, taking over for Denise North, who was with the program for 16 years prior.
South Ridge is thankful to have their coach back, as Brad Olesiak sustained injuries in a car accident last December that led to some questions about his return. Stepping into the gym last week to see his Panthers for the first time again, Olesiak couldn't have been more emotional.
"For a few months there I wasn't even sure if I'd be back to coaching," said Olesiak, in his 10th season, and welcoming back a 12-15 team from a year ago. "So to walk out on that court was a good moment for me."
Olesiak's group, which opens up with Silver Bay next Monday at home in Culver, will revolve around his daughter, Celia, as well as Marissa Bober, Delanie Bushbaum and Shayna Preston — all four who started consistently last season.
FOND DU LAC
Fond du Lac Ojibwe meanwhile, will also welcome new coach Courtney Thompson to their sideline, replacing longtime coach Dale Sautbine, who retired last year after 32 years of coaching and teaching at small tribal school.
Thompson, 22, who played briefly at Cloquet High School, said she has around 15 girls on her varsity team and is looking forward to her first ever year as a coach.
"There's a lot more to do than I thought," Thompson said with a laugh. "But I'm motivated for the challenge. And the girls are motivated, confident and energized, too. I think we're ready to go."