The 2023 Menomonie Volleyball Sprawl got off to an inauspicious start for the Ellsworth Panthers as they lost two straight to start the tournament against the Columbus Catholic Dons. However, the …
The 2023 Menomonie Volleyball Sprawl got off to an inauspicious start for the Ellsworth Panthers as they lost two straight to start the tournament against the Columbus Catholic Dons. However, the Panthers were not deterred, going 3-0 to end the qualifying round beating Clayton in three sets, Menomonie in two and Merrill in three taking it right down to the wire on the last game. They finished day one of the tournament taking second in their pool just behind Columbus.
For anybody who knows about Ellsworth Girls Volleyball, they know that last year’s record was not indicative of the level of talent on this roster. In the offseason, Kayla Klecker, former Panther and volleyball player, took over as head coach of the program. Her goal was to rebuild this program and create the kind of positive environment that she played in when she went to Ellsworth High School.
“Mindset Matters” was on the back of Klecker’s shirt as she exuberantly coached the team from the sidelines.
“I felt like in the past couple of years, the mental game was lacking or missing. We had physical abilities that were not backed up with the mental toughness or the drive to finish a set or finish a play,” Klecker said. “The seniors actually chose this quote, and it just really rings true. It’s the thing that sets winning teams apart from other teams, having that tenacity to finish and take home a W.”
One of the players benefitting from this revamped program is junior classman Mya Petersen.
“I think that we collectively as a volleyball team and program, especially the upper classmen, we decided that we were going to have positive energy,” Petersen said. “Last year, it was a lot more toxic, so this year we decided we were going to make a change. We're going to start a legacy, and we're going to change the program to make it better for these incoming freshmen. I remember as a freshman it was not the greatest atmosphere for me, and it’s very important to me that the freshmen feel welcome. I'm always there helping them and giving them tips.”
This new motto, and a team determination to include everyone, is already having the trickledown effect that Klecker envisioned, which is especially important when you’re as top heavy with talent as the Panthers are this year.
“We do have seven seniors that will be leaving us, which is a large number for a program like ours, but we do have close to eight or nine juniors that are still staying with us as well,” Klecker said. “We also gained a really large freshman class that has a lot of potential. So, in the upcoming years, I think there's going to be a lot of change and positivity moving forwards.”
Petersen couldn’t be happier about this turnaround after last season, but for more than just that reason. After her freshman junior varsity year, she tore her ACL, MCL and meniscus while playing club level volleyball, and she went through extensive rehab. During this time, she was a manager for the Panthers volleyball team, which she says actually helped improve her game more than she expected.
“I think I learned a lot by managing because I watched so many games,” Petersen said. “It was a nine-month recovery, and it really helped just seeing the game a lot because a lot of volleyball is mental. Just seeing how things are run a lot helped me improve as a player.”
Klecker’s Panthers ultimately finished the Menomonie tournament with a record of 4-3, going 1-2 on day 2, but that doesn’t change the team’s mindset at all. After finishing so strong on Day 1, they knew their schedule on Day 2 was going to be difficult.
“It was challenging for sure, but definitely earned and deserved,” Klecker said. “We talk about controllables and uncontrollable with the girls. In the end, both teams are coming to play and play to win. So, that's the mentality that we've told our girls that we have to come into every game with.”
Mindset matters. It’s that mentality that carries this team, and it’s one that they all hope will last beyond this season.
“The long term of really, you know, buying into this system and the culture that we're hopefully creating, and changing what we had before to something that's long lasting, is really great,” Klecker said.
Panthers volleyball continues this week with meets on Tuesday in Baldwin and Thursday in Somerset.
Wolves replenish their pack
The Elmwood-Plum City Wolves had a rough time at the Menomonie Volleyball Sprawl this year, losing all seven matches they played.
This underwhelming start to the season likely isn’t what Wolves fans were expecting to see. In 2022, Elmwood-Plum City won the Dunn-St. Croix conference and went on to become regional champs, both firsts for them, but Amanda Webb, the Wolves head coach, says a slow start was to be expected this season.
“We had a great, great year last year, but we graduated seven seniors after the season,” Webb said. “Right now we have three freshmen that are starting, a couple of juniors mixed in and some sophomores. We're just a really young team, but we’re getting experience.”
Webb says this is year one of a two-year plan to rebuild and that continuity is key.
“It took us a long time to build where we are today. I started with those seniors that graduated in middle school, and we got our first conference and regional championships,” Webb said. “We're going to rebuild. It's going to take a few years, but we’ve got a lot of great underclassmen, and even looking at our middle school players coming up. It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re excited for it.”
Elmwood-Plum City’s less than ideal outcome at Menomonie is just step one in that rebuild as the Wolves gain experience. The Dunn-St. Croix season also doesn’t get underway until Sept. 14, and the defending champs have several more meets to attend before that happens.
“We go to La Crosse next weekend for a tournament, then we play Cadott right after Labor Day and then we have a tournament at home,” Webb said. “So, we still have a lot of time to get ready for conference play.”
Don’t call it a rebuild
The River Falls Wildcats finished the 2023 Menomonie Volleyball Sprawl in a position other than first place for the first time since 2016, as they came into this tournament having won it five consecutive times.
This year was a little different, though, as they took home fifth place, winning all four of their Day 1 games but ultimately falling short of a 6-peat. Wildcats head coach, Sara Kealy, says they haven’t had a team this inexperienced in years.
“We had seven years of back-to-back seasons where we’d graduate a D1 player and then pull another one off the bench. We don’t have that right now,” Kealy said. “I had to have a conversation with these kids this year. I told them, ‘You don't have to be that player that was here before you. We don't need them. They've moved on, they’re in other places. You just have to be the best version of you because that's what we need right now.’”
This year’s team has three seniors, three juniors, four sophomores and three freshmen. Maddy Range, one of the juniors on the team, says they’ve had to mix things up a lot so far as they’re playing without a “middle,” who is typically the tallest player on the team and acts as the first line of defense against the other team’s hits.
“I’m an outside, but I have one rotation where I’ve been hitting in the middle and one where I’m on the right side,” Range said. “Most teams will stay in their position. We have to run a little different because we don't have any true middle on our team, so we have middle by committee.”
Even though River Falls is facing their first real challenge in many years from a roster standpoint, expectations are high across the board that they will maintain the success that they’ve enjoyed for the better part of a decade.
“What I do like about my team is the culture it has that we recreated,” Kealy said. “Last year was so positive. It was one where everybody could grow and thrive, and I feel like we've started that way this year. So, yeah, I got kids with less experience, but they're doing it the right way. They’re a totally different team now that they were just two weeks ago when practices started.”
The players understand where they’re at as well. It’s not necessarily a rebuild, more of a retooling.
“Even though we’ve lost so many big players, we’re still keeping the same expectations for ourselves,” Range said. “We know we can win the same way that they did, and we hold ourselves to that standard.”
The first Big Rivers Conference game of the season will be a good one as the River Falls Wildcats will host the Chippewa Falls Cardinals in a rivalry game Thursday night at 7 p.m.