Graduation and an injury have caused changes in the St. Croix Central volleyball team, but the main goal for the 2018 season remains the same.
The Panthers won the first Middle Border Conference championship in 2017. Ending up at the top of the conference is the plan for 2018.
To remain atop the MBC, the Panthers will need some things to come together. They graduated two all-conference players in Katie Koerper and Kalli Cress. Over the summer, they were dealt a major shock when senior Claire Frankiewicz suffered a knee injury that will sideline her for the season. She was one of the top returning middle hitters in the conference.
Last season's championship was the culmination of several years of work, resulting in the Panthers advancing to the WIAA sectional championship match.
Last year, the Panthers went 26-0 until losing in the sectional championship match. Amassing such an amazing record helped the Panthers build a much tougher schedule this season. In the first night of their season, the undefeated worries were over. But, according to Panther coach Mindy Widiker, a loss to defending state champion River Falls was a match the Panthers needed to push their progress this season.
The Panthers also played in the UW-Stout Sprawl over the weekend, going 4-3. All three losses went to three sets and they were against high-powered opponents like Eau Claire North, D.C. Everest and Eau Claire Regis.
The lineup looks quite different for the Panthers this season, with three freshmen and two sophomores on the varsity roster. But there is also a group of veteran players who will make sure nothing gets too out of control.
That group is led by senior Abby Widiker, the reigning Most Valuable Player of the MBC. Widiker is one of the most complete players in this part of the state. She hits rockets, but her play is just as strong in every aspect of the game.
Four seniors on the Panther roster are situated so they all hold key roles and different roles on the team. Mary Buckel is a returning All-MBC player as the Panthers' libero. Katherine Cottrell is a force as a middle hitter. Karlee Martinez returns as the veteran setter in the team's 6-2 attack.
So, in every area, the Panthers have a veteran leader. Coach Widiker likes the team to be three-deep in all roles, so the team is well positioned in case of injury. Martinez will be joined at setter by sophomore Kaitlyn Holmgren and junior Morgan Siler.
Cottrell will lead the middle hitters, with freshman Delaynee Bohatta and sophomore Olivia Cleary also in the plans. Autumn Brown will also figure in somewhere along the front line.
Joining Widiker as a leftside attacker and all-around player will be junior Khloe Martinez.
"We'll be relying on her for defense, offense, serves, everything," Coach Widiker said.
Two freshmen figure as the right-side players to start the season in Katie Gostovich and Katie Larson.
Joining Buckel in defensive roles will be Taylor Jernell and Kolbi Juen.
Coach Widiker downplayed any concerns about the team being on the younger side, because of the amount of volleyball the girls have played to get ready for playing at the high school level.