The Central Lakes College volleyball team is in familiar territory this weekend as they play host to the NJCAA Region 13B tournament this weekend on Friday and Saturday, November 1st and 2nd.
Since 2013 the Raiders have lost just two division games and none on their home floor, and they have earned the right to be the tournament host all of those years which has resulted in six trips to the national tournament, including last year’s team that finished in fourth place.
Sydney Forbord, Hailey Tihlarik, Maggi Fellerman, Kylie Porter and Sydney Berg will look to earn their second trip to the national tournament when the No. 1 Raiders take the floor at 6 p.m. Friday against No. 4 Northland.
However, the path to get their for this year’s team has been much different.
After starting the season out with a 10-2 mark the team had to forfeit all of their wins. They were faced with an 0-12 record and also an 0-2 Northern Division mark Sept. 11. Things could have gone sideways at that point, but the team responded to finish the regular season with a record of 12-2 record in division play and 16-13 overall.
The Raiders clinched the top spot last week with a 3-0 win at Mesabi. The No. 2 Norse will face No. 3 Itasca in the second game at 8 p.m. The winners of the two games will match up for the championship game at noon Saturday, Nov. 2.
“Without the forfeits this team is 24-5,” Raider head coach Jane Peterson said. “We’ve been winning a lot all the way along, but we did take a huge leap into another level of play about a month ago. We switched to a 5-1 offense with Kylie Porter setting and we settled on a pretty regular lineup. It provided us with some consistency that we were lacking.
We have so many versatile players, it took me awhile to figure out how we could be our best. And it took some players awhile to figure out how to be the best in their role on the team.”
Offensively, the team has been led by Sidney Berg who has accumulated 315 kills and Maggie Fellerman with 232. First year player Nicole Kortan has stepped up with 196 kills and Haley Schleper is next with 163. Porter has been averaging 10-12 set assists per game since the change to the 5-1 offense.
Defensively, Hailey Tihlarik has 422 digs and the serving game has been strong with six players tallying at least 25 aces. The team's total for ace serves stands at 281.
In mid-October the Raiders traveled to Devils Lakes for an annual tournament and they came away from that weekend with a 3-1 record that showed Peterson how much potential her team had.
“At the Lake Region Tournament we faced teams who were playing at a significantly different level than most of our regular season opponents,” Peterson said. “We beat three Division II schools (Dakota College, Williston and Dawson College) and lost in five sets to the best team (Bismarck State) we’ve played since Aug. 28. I really didn’t know this team would react to the challenge of faster teams and more powerful hitters, but we settled in to play really good volleyball the whole weekend.”
Their Friday opponent, Northland, finished the regular season with a 9-5 conference mark and were 9-13 overall. The two teams last met at Central Lakes on Oct. 9 with the Raiders winning 3-0.
Carly Mekash is the leading hitter for the Pioneers, averaging 3.33 kills per set and she is followed by Janie Wunderlich who averages 3.09 kills per set.
If Central Lakes can win on Friday their most likely opponent on Saturday would be Mesabi who finished the season with a 12-2 mark in division play. Their only two losses came at the hands of the Raiders.
The Norse are led by Isabella Mattila and Montana Baker who have a total of 620 kills.
The two teams played five sets in their match at Central Lakes in September. The Norse didn’t have Haley Hanson, another big hitter who was out with an injury.
“Each of our potential opponents have a player or two who can sores and then they will have to rely on their scrappiness to keep the ball in play,” Peterson said. “Because we are still making a number of mistakes this strategy can work against up. We need to take advantage of other teams when their best hitters aren’t in the front row. It’s not that we have a better coach, or system, or schedule, we just have better players than our opponents. So, we just need to trust ourselves.”