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NLS long building process paying off

<b>Photo by T.J. Bartelt</b> New London-Spicer players celebrate their Section 6AA championship win over Sauk Centre Saturday at the College of St. Benedcit in St. Joseph.

ST. PAUL -- When several of the current seniors on the New London-Spicer volleyball team were in eighth grade, the program was in a rebuilding stage under then-coach Kay Czarnetzki, who consistently used younger players, knowing that one day this group would be among the elite in the state.

"I don't worry about how many wins we get right now," Czarnetzki said five years ago when the team finished 6-23. "This team is going to be very good when they are juniors and seniors."

Czarnetzki left the program two years ago for personal reasons. But her prediction held true as the Wildcats are 32-1 and have earned a berth in the Class AA state tournament that begins today at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. NLS, seeded No. 4 among the eight teams, will open at 5 p.m. today against Hibbing (20-11).

"I remember we were a little embarrassed when we were losing all the time back then," said senior setter/hitter Justine Dam-mermann, who recently became only the 17th player all-time in the area to go over 2,000 assists for a career. "We talked about how we needed to work harder to get better."

Of the six seniors on the Wildcats' team this season, Dammermann, Taylor Thompsen and Cassie Ziemer all have started since eighth grade. Jenna Moritz was promoted to the varsity later in the season as an eighth-grader. Karli Wendlandt and Hannah Setterberg played as freshmen. And current juniors Karsee Knutson and Alanna Dietz played as sophomore. In all, they have a wealth of experience.

"I think the experience we have is the big thing for us now," Dammermann said. "The seniors have been playing together since fourth grade. We know so much about each other. That really makes a big difference."

The team improved by one win as freshmen, finishing 7-20. After that, things started to take shape for the Wildcats.

"We played together all summer," said Dammermann. "We even went to Florida to play in the JO nationals. I don't remember how we finished there, but that's when we knew we were going to have a pretty good team in high school."

NLS finished 18-10 in 2007, the final year Czarnetzki coached. Former NLS coach Margaret Essler returned as co-coach with one of her former players, Mimi (Harrier) Knutson. Those two guided the team to a 23-7 finish last season before bowing to Rocori in the Section 6AA-South championship.

The Wildcats have just about everything a successful team needs: speed, athleticism, desire, a hard work ethic, solid coaching, leadership, and above all, experience.

"We have a lot of options on offense," said Knutson, who was also lured out of retirement after being a successful coach at Belgrade-Brooten-Elrosa for eight seasons. "I still don't think I've seen everyone 'on' at the same time this year yet. We maybe have three girls one night playing exceptionally well and the next time it might be someone else. We don't really rely specifically on one person and that makes it harder for the other team to defend."

Thompsen, a 5-7 middle hitter, leads the team in kills this season with 337 and in ace blocks with 92. She is second with 250 digs. Wendlandt, a 5-9 outside hitter, has 287 kills, 75 ace blocks and a team-best 253 digs. Cassie Ziemer, a two-time All-Area selection, has 237 kills and 84 ace blocks. Dammermann, who was All-Area last season, has 850 assists to go along with 97 kills, a team-high 54 ace serves and 34 ace blocks. Knutson, a 5-9 right-side hitter, has 130 kills, 148 assists, 35 ace serves and 26 ace blocks. Dietz, a 5-7 junior outside hitter, has 121 kills and 27 ace blocks. And Moritz, the Wildcats' libero, has 235 digs and is second on the team with 48 ace serves. Setterberg, a defensive specialist, has 93 digs. 

This is the fourth state appearance for NLS in volleyball, but their first since 1998. They also made state trips in 1993 and 1995.

Hibbing placed third in Class AA last season. This is its seventh straight state tournament appearance and 23rd overall, including a state championship in 1975.