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Prep volleyball: Douglas County teams look to make deeper postseason runs

The Northwestern Tigers, Superior Spartans and Solon Springs Eagles are all looking to improve their play on the court and their records in the 2022 campaign.

Solon Springs’ Paetyn Simenson dives for a ball during practice
Solon Springs’ Paetyn Simenson dives for a ball during practice Friday, Aug. 26, in Solon Springs.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — The Northwestern, Solon Springs and Superior volleyball teams will look to make it past the regional round of playoffs in the upcoming volleyball season.

Only Solon Springs was able to make it to the second game of regionals in their respective division, but all three teams were sent home before having a shot at sectionals in the 2021 season.

Northwestern Tigers

Northwestern had a challenging 2021 season, as they fell to 4-22, including losing their first 15 matches, and were swept by Bloomer in the first round of the WIAA Division 3 regional playoffs.

Northwestern’s Brynn Hessel (9) passes a ball after a dig by her teammate Brinley Tonn (4)
Northwestern’s Brynn Hessel (9) passes a ball after a dig by her teammate Brinley Tonn (4) in the first game of the Tigers victory in Superior on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Jed Carlson / File / Superior Telegram

The team is set to bring back six players, including three whose feet were cemented in the starting lineups. Coach Charlie Hessel doesn’t want his team to forget about the 2021 season.

“Pushing through adversity, and being able to overcome those rough times” was a point of emphasis for the coach heading into this season. After last year, Hessel is hoping his captains can help lead the team through rough times, including his daughter Brynn Hessel.

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The Tigers' senior co-captain is looking to bring a mindset to the team that helps them, “stay positive and come out of Onalaska (tournament) with a winning record after a couple of years of not being able to,” she said about her goals for the season.

On Aug. 22 the Tigers had a scrimmage with Hayward, Cumberland, and Mellen. Charlie Hessel had much praise for his experienced team, and said, “We have seven seniors on the team who have been playing together for many years, in-season and during the offseason. I’m looking forward to the effort and time they have put in together and seeing it hopefully pay off.”

The cohesion this group has was on full display as both father and daughter said that communication will be the strength for the Tigers volleyball team. Communication leads to better play overall.

“Our passing was a lot better than last season in the scrimmage and it allows us to play more up tempo,” Charlie Hessel said.

Everyone is looking forward to seeing how this will help the team better set up its hitters. which include a great variety of seniors and another of coach Hessel's daughters, Shelby, a freshman.

Seniors Brynley Tonn, the team's setter, and 6-foot-1 right hitter Gabby Risley will also be relied upon.

The Tigers take on Rice Lake in the first home game of the season on Sept. 13.

Superior Spartans

For the Superior Spartans, they will take a vastly different approach to the season as they are only returning three players from the 2021 roster.

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This is why communication is the main focal point for coach Brenda Pluntz.

Superior’s Tarah Yliniemi (8) hits over Northwestern’s Shelby Hessel (8)
Superior’s Tarah Yliniemi (8) hits over Northwestern’s Shelby Hessel (8) in the first game of the match in Superior on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“We had many open gyms and summer league games. I feel that was a good way to get them to work together before the season started,” Pluntz said.

The team will look to improve on a 6-12, 2021 season led by the Superior Telegram’s All-Area Player of the Year in Lexi Lohman. Lohman had a deep knowledge of the game, which she passed down not only to her sister Carlie Lohman, but also to teammates Mahlea Waters and Savanna Herring.

Pluntz said, “Our strengths are that we work hard, have great court awareness and all players are knowledgeable when it comes to the game.”

Superior’s Kloe Zentkowski (2) hits over the net
Superior’s Kloe Zentkowski (2) hits over the net in the first game of the match with Northwestern in Superior on Tuesday, Aug. 30.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

Getting on the right track as a team and being consistent are the players' main focuses, Carlie Lohman said.

“The biggest thing to work on is knowing each other and how to play together because our offense, defense and (ability to) transition is getting really good,” she said.

Consistency will also be something the team works on, Pluntz said.

“Working together to become consistent game after game, especially since each team is different and you have to be ready to adjust and adapt to them," she said.

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The team is excited to finally be back playing after a long second semester and summer break. Carlie Lohman said she is most looking forward to “making more connections through the sport and creating better relationships.”

The Spartans volleyball team is hoping to improve on a regional loss to Eau Claire Memorial last season and with a mix of different experience levels, they will have to find a way to do it together.

Solon Springs Eagles

The Solon Springs Eagles volleyball team was the only Douglas County team to make it into the second round of the regional playoffs.

Despite that success, first-year coach Ciara Simenson believes there is room to improve. After being the assistant coach under Melanie Gehl for five years, Simenson is now leading the charge for the Eagles.

Solon Springs head volleyball coach Ciara Simenson, left, talks with freshman Audrey Swanson during practice
Solon Springs head volleyball coach Ciara Simenson, left, talks with freshman Audrey Swanson during practice Friday, Aug. 26, in Solon Springs.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“I’m going to build off (Melanie’s ability) getting the girls to work together as a team … Trying to have six leaders on the floor at a time rather than just one or two.”

Much of the Eagles' short-handed team is young as there are only three upperclassmen, all of whom are seniors.

One of the seniors Simenson will look count on for leadership with high knowledge of volleyball is Kyra Latvala, who primarily plays right-side hitter and setter.

Solon Springs’ Isabel Molina serves during practice
Solon Springs’ Isabel Molina serves during practice Friday, Aug. 26, in Solon Springs.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

For Latvala, her goals are simple: “To leave the younger girls with as much skill and knowledge as I can before my time runs out.”

Latvala said she recognizes the disadvantage the team has with so few players out. Only eight girls will be playing this year, but it may help them in some ways.

“We are a very tight-knit group that works together, but we have a lot of learning to do, including myself and the other seniors,” Latvala said.

Simenson said agreed and said despite the work ahead of them, she believes in the group of girls who will take the court. They'll look to build up their endurance and make progress as the season rolls on.

Solon Springs’ Kyra Latvala passes a ball during practice
Solon Springs’ Kyra Latvala passes a ball during practice Friday, Aug. 26, in Solon Springs.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

“We only have eight girls, so stamina is going to be a focus of the season, especially with our three freshmen having to play varsity minutes.”

With a young team, Simenson said she will look to try new things and hopes for success, but understands failure may be along the path as well.

“I want to see them succeed, but if they do fail I’m interested in how they will bounce back to better themselves,” she said.

The Eagles will start their season on Sept. 8 in Mellen. They will face off against South Shore 11 days later, a rematch against the team that beat them in the regional playoffs.

Solon Springs head volleyball coach Ciara Simenson, center, talks to her team before practice
Solon Springs head volleyball coach Ciara Simenson, center, talks to her team before practice Friday, Aug. 26, in Solon Springs.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

This story was updated at 8 p.m. Sept. 7 with the correct date of Northwestern volleyball's home opener. It was originally posted at 7 a.m. Sept. 3. The Telegram regrets the error.

Jeffrey McClure is a student at the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He contributes to the Superior Telegram as a freelance reporter.
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