Jane Peterson does not cry, but she has already in the early part of the 2021 season.
The head coach for the Central Lakes College Raiders volleyball team is ecstatic to be back on the sidelines and in the gym after being forced off the court last season as the Minnesota College Athletic Conference called off the fall 2020 season.
“We were sitting in a circle and talking about being all in,” Peterson said. “The girls came up with their own words about what being committed to the team means and what being all in means. A few of them talked about why they are here and it was super emotional and I’m just happy to be with a group that wants to be here. It’s a super positive group. It’s a good learning environment. People are listening and hardworking and It’s just a super group. Everyone is exhausted and it’s fun.”
Despite being two years since the Raiders last saw the court in an official capacity, CLC does have two returning players that saw action during the 2019 season in middle hitter Haley Schleper and defensive specialist Sarah Bennett.
“I can’t even measure how beneficial it is to have those two back,” Peterson said. “I was super, super happy when they decided to return. When messages come from a teammate it’s just way more meaningful than when it comes from a coach.
“They know what to expect. They both want to be good leaders and since the end of 2019 we’ve been talking about that a lot -- how to be good leaders. It’s a great opportunity for them as well. It will make everything for me, and their team, a lot easier to have someone to guide them.”
Schleper finished with eight kills, one ace serve, two digs and a block in the 2019 NJCAA Division III fifth-place match against Harper.
Bennett contributed two set assists, an ace serve and seven digs as CLC finished 2019 with a 21-14. Nine of those losses were forfeits.
In 35 matches in 2019, Schleper recorded 201 kills, 171 digs, 89 blocks and 40 ace serves.
“Haley has the potential to be really, really good,” Peterson said. “She has the potential to play all the way around. I’m hoping she can play all the way around because she’s a good defensive player. She’s a good passer, a good hitter and a good blocker. There are plenty of ways for her to contribute if we can figure out how to get the ball to her and when is the right time and if she can stay mentally tough. There is a very high ceiling for her.”
Peterson added that if Schleper believes in herself as much as her coach does she will have a breakout season this year. As will Bennett, a 5-foot-6 graduate of St. Cloud Apollo.
In 34 matches in 2019, Bennett finished with 74 set assists, 162 digs and 36 ace serves.
“Sarah has a lot of good court sense,” Peterson said. “She has spent a lot of time coaching in the last year and a half. She is aware of everyone else’s responsibilities besides her own. She can communicate.
“I’m not sure if she’s going to set or play defense. We’re kind of struggling with the setter position and what’s the real lineup because we have so many options, but her ability to communicate on and off the court is really her strength.”
Finding a No. 1 setter will be key for the Raiders' success and CLC does have options. Keelle Shafer is a second-year college student, a first-year college athlete who can set. Jacey Rydberg is a Crosby-Ironton High School graduate who can also hit and Brainerd High School graduate Grace Peabody could also play setter or become a hitter.
“It’s crucial that we find a setter,” Peterson said. “We can’t just keep rotating people in there. Hopefully, it will take us one weekend for us to figure out who should be setting. It’s important to figure it out and we’re trying.”
Mixing things up in the middle will be Henning graduate Megan Rinicker. The 5-foot-10 hitter helped the Henning volleyball team to state in 2019.
“She’s an all-state player on a team that went to a state tournament,” Peterson said. “She’s a really good competitor. She’ll be a middle hitter.
“Grace, who has been at Brainerd, will be one of our setters. She’s another person I’m really trying to believe in herself. She could be a really good setter. I don’t know that she believes in herself as much as I do.
“I know another girl that we’re going to rely on a lot is Jaime Johnson from Pine River. She’s another player who has played in state tournaments and is a good competitor. Jaime is probably going to be playing in a new position. She played middle all through high school, but we’ll move her to outside.”
Peterson is also intrigued about Tori Plemel’s development. Plemel was a stand-out at Lake Region Christian School.
Shafer and Gabbie Enneking are both second-year students. A recent college graduate and former Brainerd hockey player Brooke Watland is on the team. She graduated from the University of Minnesota, but is taking science classes at CLC in preparation for grad school. Watland was part of the Gopher women’s Crew team and has helped start the Brainerd Lakes Rowing Club.
“She is learning volleyball now,” Peterson said. “She didn’t know a lot when we started and she is learning a lot every day. She’s a very good athlete.”
This group will be challenged early as CLC heads to Rockford, Illinois for a two-day, four-match event against the top-tier competition in the nation as well as two Division II teams.
“We need to play as hard as we can no matter the situation and it’s just a long trip, which is good for team building and just getting to know one another,” Peterson said. “Hopefully we can identify a more sure lineup. It’s been a short preseason. We’ve had fewer practices before our first practice. We’re just trying to be challenged and be good competitors and play on our side. Concentrate on our side and have fun on our side.”