WILLMAR—Imagine a volleyball team stocked with some of the top graduated seniors from around the area and you'd probably get a team that looks a lot like Ridgewater's this season.
Head coach Joe Sussenguth is back for his 12th year at the helm for the Warriors and he'll have what amounts to an all-star team of local athletes looking to take Ridgewater back to the national championship game and finish with a better result. The Warriors finished 26-6 last season, falling to Harper College in the national championship 3-1. As is often the case at a two-year school, though, this year's team will have a different look to it. All-American middle hitter Hailey Leiding is gone, as is setter Baylie Kubesh and three other key players.
"Hailey was an explosive middle hitter, no one can be her," Sussenguth said. "Recreating somebody that left is impossible. Each player offers originality. We want to take the strongest attributes of our new players, enrich what they do well and use that to the team's advantage."
Sussenguth has quite the array of players to do just that. Willmar's Heidi Sellmann is a player that could step in as a middle hitter while fellow Cardinal grads Cami Sletta and Hannah Gallagher will be battling for a spot at outside hitter.
"We have so much talent at outside hitter," Sussenguth said, citing Sletta, Gallagher, Paynesville's Ashley Froelich and Katelyn Dingman, ACGC's Taryn Reinke, NLS' Brennah Bergh, Buffalo Lake-Hector-Stewart's Kiana Johnson and Watertown's Ashley Vealetzek. "It will probably be a match-to-match or even set-to-set directive with our lineups. On the right side, Ashley Froelich and Cami both hit with their left hand, which is very unique, so that gives us an advantage."
Sletta, Sellmann and Gallagher are part of a Willmar High School takeover at Ridgewater this season. The Warriors have four Cardinal graduates this season, including freshman defensive specialist Staci Banks, a significant change from previous rosters.
Sophomore Catelyn Haug would make the count five but she tore her ACL last week at the start of practice.
"Since I've been here, we normally have one or two (Willmar grads) every three years," Sussenguth said. "It's exciting to have players from Willmar because it shows that we can be a good place to start a career for local kids. By Willmar kids staying it starts to open up recruiting at other close schools, like KMS or MACCRAY or New London-Spicer."
In addition to Willmar graduates, the Warriors also feature players from throughout the area. The bevy of local talent helps create some familiarity for players.
"We're definitely representing the area well," Sussenguth said. "There's certainly a lot of familiarity before they even join the team. The players have either played together or against each other for years in school and club ball, they learn about each other through social media, so when they become teammates they already know who each other is."
At setter, Jessica Lemke (Glencoe-Silver Lake) and Sarah Sulflow (Montevideo) will compete to replace Kubesh who played every set for the Warriors last season and averaged 9.33 set assists per set.
Though the team will feature nine freshmen, Ridgewater also boasts a strong group of sophomores itching to get back to the national championship. Defensive specialists Jamie Goblirsch and Sadie Pengle join middle hitter Kallee Anderson as well as Froelich, Johnson and Vealetzek as returners from last year's squad that finished 13-1 in conference play. The group of returners remember last season's championship loss well and the incoming freshmen know the stakes already.
"Since before I even got here, we've been established as a top program, so the new players walk into that environment," Sussenguth said. "Losing a national championship is a great motivator. There was no need to send direct or indirect messages to the players about getting better. They want it and they're ready to do the work it takes to get there."