When Northwestern High School volleyball coach Charlie Hessel says the Tigers are young this season, it isn’t hyperbole.

Northwestern was expected to have five sophomores in its starting lineup for the Tigers’ season opener Thursday, Sept. 17, in Maple against Ladysmith.

Despite the youth, don’t tell these Tigers they can’t win now.

“Exactly,” Hessel said. “They’re going to be able to compete. They just have to believe in themselves.”

You certainly don’t have to remind Allison Luoma of that. The 5-foot-10 senior captain is a starting middle blocker in volleyball, a starting center in basketball and a starting pitcher in softball, though the coronavirus pandemic shut down her season last spring before it even got started.

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“And it would have been a good year, too,” Luoma said.

While Luoma played softball and volleyball over the summer, she hasn’t played an organized high school game since last winter.

“We’re all just really excited,” she said.

It will be an abbreviated season. Last year the Tigers played 36 matches, going 11-25 and 4-4 in the Heart O’ North Conference. This year they will only play nine, and they will all be HON matches, though there is still hope for a postseason tournament.

Practice started Sept. 8, so there has only been about half the amount of practice time before the opener as a typical year, but Hessel said that hasn’t been an issue.

“A lot of the girls have played a lot of club ball, that sort of thing, so it’s not like the last time they played was October,” he said. “They’re champing at the bit to get going.”

Northwestern held their own in a scrimmage Tuesday at Bloomer, the same team that’s ruled the conference in recent years.

“Bloomer graduated quite a few players from last year, but their last game was in Green Bay at the state tournament,” Hessel said. “We went down there and were toe-to-toe with them the entire time, and that was fun to see.”

While Northwestern is young, they’re not necessarily inexperienced. Besides Luoma, the Tigers return starters Brynn Erickson and Brynn Hessel, Charlie’s daughter. Erickson is a sophomore outsider hitter while Brynn Hessel is a sophomore who played outside hitter last year, but is switching to middle this fall.

“The cool part about that, a lot of people, when you have five sophomores starting, you could look ahead to the future, but I think the present is looking pretty decent as well,” Charlie Hessel said. “We’ve got quite a bit of energy, and the girls really work well together, they’re very positive. It’s a fun group, from our oldest senior to our youngest freshman. They’re excited to be in the gym, that’s for sure. We’re taking it day to day.”

The biggest weakness right now is depth, but the Tigers expect seniors Claire Brinker and Marie Livingston to soon be back.

While the sophomore group has the rising stars, it never hurts to have numbers.

“Well, they’re pretty much our whole varsity team right now, so they’re pretty strong,” Luoma said of her sophomore teammates. “I’m trying to help prepare them for the future, but for me, this is my last chance. This is it.”

Tigers at a glance

Head coach: Charlie Hessel

Assistant coaches: Kara Hietala (JV) and Cindy Morgan (C), as well as volunteer assistant Steve Erickson

Returning starters: Brynn Erickson (sophomore outside), Allison Luoma (senior middle), Brynn Hessel (sophomore outside/middle)

New faces to watch: "Great question! This one is tough to answer," Hessel said. He was sent the questionnaire before the team had started practicing.

Team strengths: "Versatility will be one of them," Hessel said. "With our current situation, you never know when a player will be out for an extended period of time. A lot of our players can play multiple positions."

Biggest challenge: "Along with everyone else, time! We are used to getting 25-30 hours of practice in before we play, but this year, we will only have 12-15 hours, if all goes as planned," he said.

Coach's assessment: The program has fewer players in the pipeline, with 25 or 26 signed up across three levels, Hessel said. That means the group is young, but Hessel said their experience on club teams will help them down the line.

"It will be interesting to see how the season plays out. I wish we were able to have a complete season ... because I think this is a group that has the potential to gel and play some exciting volleyball," he said. "Obviously we'll have to do that sooner rather than later given the circumstances, but again, I am optimistic."