Teams set for the net
Desiree DeLeon admitted that her daughter, Dea, is the shortest player on the Esko varsity volleyball team, but don't let the scrappy libero fool you when looking at the Eskomos.
Perhaps the "Esko Skyscrapers" would be more fitting.
Seniors Bridget Yellin, Makayla Abrahamson and sophomore Taiya Gregg stand 6-foot-1, 5-11 and 5-10, often giving Esko the edge at net. The three-headed monster allows a lengthy lineup for DeLeon, in her 11th season as head coach, to center around.
The Eskomos travel to Hermantown on Tuesday, Aug. 28, for the season opener.
Esko's triple towers will need to take over for graduate Hannah Stark, who is now playing at Minnesota-Crookston.
In fact, Stark's younger sophomore sister, Brenna, will be of assistance, as the setter will help orchestrate DeLeon's offense. Another sophomore, Zoie Johnson, will also contribute, along with freshman Sarah Wagemaker and eighth-grader Gabriella Martenson.
"We have a lot of talent on this team and we have a good chance at winning a lot of games," Gregg said.
Esko was exited from the first round of the Section 7AA playoffs after losing a five-set match 3-2 at Cloquet.
A fellow Polar League neighbor that won't surprise volleyball fans is Carlton, as the Bulldogs again return a plethora of talent from a club that went 24-6 and went all the way to the Section 7A championship — a 3-2 loss to Cook County.
Barb Soukkala is now in her 25th season at Carlton, and despite having zero seniors on her roster, the longtime coach has nothing but experience in do-it-all juniors Alaina Bennett, Taylor Nelson, Nicole Nilsen, Bella Anderson and twins Brynne and Abby Mickle. All six have seen significant time.
In fact, all six played on the Bulldogs' back-to-back state tournament softball teams in 2017 and 2018. That big-game familiarity should pay dividends for Carlton, who is seeking a state run since consecutive trips in 2013 and 2014.
Carlton heads to Deer River on Tuesday, Aug. 28, in a highly-anticipated season opener with the always-tough Warriors.
"Everybody will have their sights set on us," Soukkala said.
Speaking of setting, Wrenshall will soon hit a milestone when senior Paige Johnson likely eclipses 1,000 career sets in the Wrens' first match or two. It is quite the feat for the tiny Polar League school, who along with Johnson, bring back four fellow seniors, all of whom were starters last season.
Cheyanne Johnson, Emily Adkins, Ashley Johnson, Abby Belcastro and Johnson's younger sister, Jenna, all return for second-year coach and the recently married Amy Bentow.
Wrenshall, who will start five seniors from a 13-12 team a year ago, hosts Lakeview Christian Academy on Tuesday, Aug. 28.
Also playing their opener Tuesday, Aug. 28, are a pair local Polar Leaguers when Cromwell-Wright travels to South Ridge. Both teams are always athletic and scrappy and much of the same is in store this fall for the Cardinals and Panthers.
Cromwell-Wright, who was 13-11 last season, perhaps has the biggest smiles on their faces, as they welcome back junior standout Taya Hakamaki, who is back after sustaining a knee injury last winter in basketball.
"She is cleared to play," said Amy Granholm, now in her sixth season.
That's scary for the opposition, as Hakamaki mixes with her returning cousins, Shaily and Amanda, as well as varsity veterans in setter Zayde Smith and hitter Josie Jokinen.
Brad Olesiak can say the same about South Ridge, who is always in the small-school mix. Last fall, the Panthers went 13-12 and bring back his senior daughter, Celia, classmate setter Shayna Preston and junior duo Abby Almer and Natalee Smith — all of whom have multiple years on the varsity.
For Olesiak, who also coaches with his older daughter, Mikayla, this fall marks his 10th season on the sidelines and second since sustaining a severe car accident in December 2016, in which he is still positively recovering from fully.
"I'm just happy to be back in the gym," Olesiak said.
Fellow Polar League rivals Barnum and Moose Lake-Willow River are also in the gym, as the Bombers head to Rush City on Tuesday, Aug. 28, while the Rebels host Hinckley-Finlayson entering the second year of their new school.
For Corinna Newman, in her 11th year at Barnum, she welcomes back a handful of starters, including Mallory Agurkis, Izzy Carlson, Meghan Liimatainen, Lauren Peaney and Lexi Bonneville, making the Bombers a certain threat.
"We're keeping a positive attitude on everything and just hoping things come together," said Newman, whose team was 12-13 last year and hopes to improve on their sub-.500 mark.
Moose Lake-Willow River
ML-WR meanwhile, was 15-10 a season ago as they broke in their new gym. Coach Beckie Jackson, in her eighth year, hopes her Rebels will continue to pose a challenge with the return of setter DonnaMae Smith, Maddie Olson, Jamie Benzie and Ellen Anderson — all of whom are varsity vets.
"We definitely have a talented offense led by a talented setter," said Jackson, noting their home tournament is Oct. 6.
Fond du Lac Ojibwe
Fond du Lac Ojibwe also returns to the hardwood this fall under second-year coach Courtney Thompson.
Despite one win last year, Thompson is optimistic in her Ogichidaag, having 17 total girls, including returnees in Kaila Dufault, Talayah Martineau, Namida Reynolds and Alyza Savage.
"We're very young," said Thompson, whose team plays at Indus on Sept. 7. "We're excited to see what the season brings."
>5 players to watch
• Savanah Sears, senior, Cloquet
• Abby Mickle, junior, Carlton
• Taiya Gregg, sophomore, Esko
• Cheyanne Johnson, senior, Wrenshall
• Shaily Hakamaki, junior, Cromwell-Wright
5 games to watch
• Cloquet at Carlton, Sept. 4, 7 p.m.
• Carlton at Esko, Sept. 11, 7 p.m.
• Cloquet at Esko, Sept. 25, 7 p.m.
• Moose Lake-Willow River at Barnum, Sept. 25, 7 p.m.
• Wrenshall at Carlton, Sept. 27, 7 p.m.