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Panthers spikers young in experience but not in skill

Ellsworth High School's volleyball team is opening the 2014 regular season this weekend in a tournament featuring some of the top teams in the state, the UW-Stout SPRAWL Invitational in Menomonie.

And they'll have to do so with a squad which graduated a cargohold worth of seniors from a 12-16 unit (3-4 in the Middle Border Conference) in 2013.

Gone are five letter winners, including first team All-MBC performer Olivia Helmer, Megan Schroeder, who was honorable mention all-conference, Tacia Kuhl, Katelyn Kannel and Chelsy Strom.

"It's a tough tournament to start out in," second-year head coach Nicole VandeBerg said. "But it's also a good place to find the team chemistry you're going to need throughout the season. Playing three to sometimes four matches in a day for two days, you hope you're able to gradually improve and become a better team and a closer, more cohesive team when it's over with."

That was true to an extent as the Panthers rebounded from an 0-3 showing the first day of the SPRAWL on Friday - losing to Rice Lake, Clayton and Athens -  by eventually getting a 2-0 win over Lakeland on Saturday and taking Menomonie to three games in the final match of the tournament before losing 2-1. EHS went 1-5 in the season-starting tourney.

VandeBerg hopes this will also be true for the Panthers' fortunes throughout the entire season. Ellsworth will start rebuilding with four returning letter winners in seniors Ellie Miller and Darby DeGross, junior Loralei Kuhl and sophomore Emily Lansing.

Lansing and DeGross will be the Panthers' middle hitters while Kuhl and DeGross will handle the outside hitting duties.

The Purple's backrow will be quite young as sophomores Isabel Sweere and Morgan Steele are planned to be rotated in as setters while sophomore Alexandra Georgakas will handle the libero role.  

VandeBerg says the team's lack of varsity playing experience should not disguise their talent.

"They know the game well," VandeBerg said. "They're experienced in playing volleyball from middle school on up and they did a lot of work together in the offseason. They've dedicated themselves to becoming good volleyball players and we've made our system fit their talents. It's going to take some time to get used to the speed of the game and each other and we'll have to do a lot in practice to develop our team. But once we do, especially as we get later into the season, hopefully we will be playing our best volleyball. We have the height and the athletic ability to be a good team."

Ellsworth will play at Elmwood Tuesday starting approximately at 7 p.m. The Panthers' first home meet is Thursday as they host a triangular with Glenwood City and St. Croix Central.