Over the past two seasons, the St. Croix Central volleyball team was one of the youngest teams in the Middle Border Conference.
But through those seasons, the Panthers were learning and growing. Most of the other teams were hit hard by graduation from last year's team, while Central brings back nearly its entire lineup. It's a roster filled with seniors and juniors and it's a group with high expectations.
"Their goal is to win conference," said fourth year Central coach Mindy Widiker.
Widiker said that while several teams went through a major turnover since last season, she still expects tough competition in every Middle Border Conference match. She listed Osceola, Prescott and Ellsworth among the leading challengers to the Panthers' conference title hopes.
Central returns two all-conference players in senior Katie Koerper and junior Abby Widiker. They will be six-rotation players, meaning they'll likely never leave the court. And as two of the leading outside hitters in the conference, they are the leaders of a diverse Central attack.
Another senior, Kalli Cress, returns as one of the Panthers' setters. Ciera Kraus returns as a right side hitter. The fourth senior on the Central roster is Brittani Hunter, who will serve as a defensive specialist.
Led by Widiker, the junior class has already played a great deal at the varsity level. Claire Frankiewicz returns as one of the middle hitters. The other middle hitter will be Katherine Cottrell, one of the Panthers who has improved the most since last season. She takes on the middle hitting role that became available when Mia Krogseng elected to not return to the team, electing to concentrate on basketball.
"It's a great opportunity for her," Coach Widiker said of Cottrell. "She's worked hard."
Karlee Martinez steps into the second setter position. Mary Buckel was a defensive specialist last season, and she moves up to the libero role in 2017. Lylah Khorshed moves up to the varsity as a junior, where she'll be a utility player. She's already impressed the coaches with her passing.
The lone sophomore on the varsity is Khloe Martinez, who'll be a right-side hitter.
The Panthers played their first matches of the season last week, and a 6-0 start has added to the excitement around the team. The Panthers played three close matches in their home quad on Thursday, scoring wins over Hudson, Prescott and Stanley-Boyd. The Panthers opened the season at a quad last Tuesday in Chetek. The Panthers rolled past the host school and Washburn. The big news was in the Panthers' match against Osceola. The Panthers won a fiercely fought battle with the Chieftains. Central won the opening set 25-19, but Osceola took the second set 25-17. Central captured the final set, 15-10.
"That was a stepping stone," Coach Widiker said of the win. And in a season with lofty goals, the Panthers are hoping it's the first of many.