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Hancock volleyball rolling along

Kendra Schmidgall, center, of Hancock is shown tipping at the net on Oct. 7 against Wheaton/Herman-Norcross. Schmidgall was All-Area last season. <b>Tribune photo by T.J. Bartelt</b>

HANCOCK - With only nine players on the varsity, it would seem likely the Hancock volleyball would be hurt by a lack of "in-house" competition. You would get the sense that there is no one to push each for playing time or to battle for a starting position. It would be natural to assume players don't have to work hard in practice since they will be playing a lot anyway.

"Often times it's nice to have girls on the bench that will make these girls work for their position," said Hancock coach Kristi Fehr. "But this year, especially with our small numbers, the girls seem to be even more competitive because I think they know that they have to step up each match and no one wants to let the team down. We have a great group of younger girls that practice with us and we do a lot of drills that focus on staying competitive and working with the numbers we have."

Staying competitive is an understatement for this group. The Owls are currently 25-1 and haven't lost a match since Sept. 11 in the championship at the UM-Morris Invite. Since then, they have won their last 20 matches.

"Our younger and inexperienced players have gained confidence throughout the season," said Fehr. "And we have an experienced setter and some great hitters. I think that we have grown in our mental toughness and believing that we are not going to lose the match no matter what."

Hancock is led most nights by 6-foot-1 junior outside hitter Kendra Schmidgall, an All-Area selection last season. But Courtney Greiner, a 6-0 sophomore middle hitter, and Lauren Nelson, a 5-11 senior middle hitter, have also made an impact when attacking the ball. Aria Walstad, a 5-7 senior, has been a solid setter all season and distributes the ball to the right people by reading the opposing team's defense.

"Our big hitters in Kendra, Courtney and Lauren have made huge improvements on being able to see the court and not just hit the ball, but find spots that are open, too," Fehr explained. "Also, I think that having players accept their roles and doing them well has made a huge impact."

"I told the girls at the beginning of the season that I felt this was their year and they controlled their destiny," said Fehr. "I knew that if we were able to get the right combination of players in the right positions and we were able to get the ball to our hitters, we would have a great chance at winning every match."

In past seasons, Fehr has noticed that teams often lose their focus in Saturday tournaments with breaks in between matches and a long day of with a lot of sitting around. This year's team didn't do that, she says. The Owls went 11-1 combined on Saturday tournaments at Morris, Minnewaska and Hancock.

Besides the aforementioned, 5-8 junior Ali Reese is a valuable member of the team that can play multiple roles. Also, Shae Brown, a 5-6 junior, and Illissa Koehl, a 5-6 senior, are defensive specialists. Abby Ascheman, a 5-9 junior, plays both middle and right side and has made big strides in improving since the opening match, Fehr said. Tara Flaten, a 5-6 junior, is a role player that can play many positions.

"Truthfully, we wouldn't be where we are right now without all nine girls on the varsity," she insisted.