High School Volleyball: New London-Spicer, Litchfield expect tough competition in Wright County

Wildcats, Dragons should be among conference’s best in this strange season

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New London-Spicer's Aleah Zieske (middle) tips the ball over a pair of Litchfield blockers during Thursday's Wright County Conference match at Litchfield High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

LITCHFIELD — Facing off against one another, New London-Spicer and Litchfield were two of more than 200 volleyball programs to open their 2020 season on Thursday.

As part of a conference-only regular season, the Wildcats captured a 3-0 road victory. NLS has won its last five matches with the Dragons. The two teams are scheduled to meet once more in the regular-season finale on Nov. 24 in New London.

Between now and then, Litchfield head coach Darin Swenson expects the road through the regular season to be filled with fierce and exciting matches.

“Every night, we’re going to get a good competitive match, so it’s going to make the season fun,” Swenson said. “The fact that we’re only playing our conference means that we will get to play for a conference title. ... Knowing that we are playing for something every night is pretty exciting.”

By the time Thanksgiving rolls around, the conference’s contenders and pretenders will be established. NLS and Litchfield expect to be on the contenders’ list.


Following back-to-back losing seasons, the Dragons produced a 19-10 record in 2019. Their year came to an end after losing to — you guessed it — NLS in the Section 3AA-North semifinals.

As for the Wildcats, they ripped off one of their best performances in school history. Coming off of three consecutive losing campaigns, NLS enjoyed a 27-3 mark. The team will try to repeat that success after a shortened preseason.

Strengths and

When volleyball was given the go-ahead by the Minnesota State High School League to proceed with a fall season on Sept. 21, programs across the state had just two weeks to prepare.

Fortunately, the Wildcats bring back loads of experience.

“It’s definitely felt more rushed than it has in past years,” NLS head coach Erin Schoumaker said. “We just haven’t had the time that we’ve taken in the past to do tryouts, even getting the younger teams set up and getting lineups. It felt very quick. I think we’re ready, but it has definitely felt very rushed.

“If it was a season that we were bringing in a whole new lineup, I definitely don’t know that we would be ready to go right now. But because I do have seven seniors, and six of them are returning starters, they pretty much already know what’s going on and what they’re doing. That has certainly helped us out.”

Hitting will be NLS’ strongest returning asset.

Senior right-side hitter Ashlyn Olson, senior middle hitter Ava Kraemer and senior outside hitters Aleah Zieske and Kendra Bagley pace the team’s attack. Olson, Zieske and Bagley each had more than 200 kills last season. Kraemer put up a team-high 121 blocks.


Defensively, Zieske and Bagley also contributed more than 300 digs. Senior libero Mya Krause is back after leading NLS with 401 digs in 2019.

If there’s any cause for concern, it's at the setter position and their overall depth.

Aside from their returning starters, the Wildcats don’t have a lot of varsity experience.

Two contributors are working their way back to full health. Junior middle hitter Olivia Mages is out with an injury. Sophomore Ellary Peterson will fill that role. After suffering a knee injury during the basketball season, sophomore Avery Rich was recently medically cleared to return and will begin her volleyball season on the junior varsity.

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New London-Spicer's Ashlyn Olson (9) takes a swing at the ball against Litchfield blockers Rachel Foley (21) and Greta Hansen (10) during Thursday's Wright County Conference match at Litchfield High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Meanwhile, with Sophia Austvold and Presley Arndt-Callenius graduating, Schoumaker plans to piece things together at setter. Although lacking in varsity playing time, junior Nyla Johnson takes over the setting reigns. Senior Emma Hanson transitions over from right-side hitter to provide a backup option. Ava Hauer may see some time in the role, but she will start the season on junior varsity.

“That’s definitely going to be our toughest hurdle to overcome, getting these setters to now connect with these hitters because none of them have any significant varsity playing time,” Schoumaker said.


Pieces in place

Litchfield has their starting spots filled with veterans. The Dragons’ lone key loss is middle hitter Colby Christensen. She graduated after leading the team with 263 kills a year ago. However, the team brings back six starters, including five seniors.

“I think it’s a huge advantage,” Swenson said. “With not knowing whether we’re going to have a season and the summer workouts and programs were limited as well, having a lot of veterans that have played before, we were able to get into the swing of things a lot faster than we normally would. Even though everything kind of got abbreviated, the girls are experienced. They’ve played together a long time and they’re ready to go.”

Following a season that earned her all-conference recognition, long-time setter Kristin Foley returns for her senior campaign. Coaches believe her twin sister, Rachel Foley, is poised for an impact year at the middle hitter spot. Sophomore hitter Greta Hanson is back after a team-high 60 blocks last season.

Elsewhere, with her play in practice leading up to the season, senior outside hitter Lily Osterberg is positioned to be one of the team’s leaders.

“Her confidence is through the roof right now with the way she’s playing,” Swenson said of Osterberg. “She’s playing out there with passion and energy. She’s playing to win, she is not tentative, which is something she didn’t always have. ... She has been playing very aggressive and she has had a lot of success playing very aggressively in these first couple weeks of practice. She’s looking really sharp and we’re really excited to see what she’d be able to do for us this year.”

Each receiving all-conference honorable mention, senior outside hitter Sydney McCann and senior defensive specialist Kamri Driver on pace for 1,000 career digs.

Their scrappy play is particularly important given that the Dragons roster doesn’t possess a ton of height, especially compared to some of the other top teams in the conference.

“It’s a weakness that we can’t control, which I’m fine with because we know it going in,” Swenson said. “We know it is something we cannot change so we know they are other areas that we’re going to have to be stronger in. ... If we serve aggressively, if we attack aggressively, it will limit the number of times the opponent can come at us with a solid attack.”

Top challengers

Of all the teams that both NLS and Litchfield will play in the regular season, Watertown-Mayer is the team to beat. Handing the Wildcats one of their losses in 2019, the Royals were 7-0 against Wright County-West opponents last season. They figure to be strong this season, as do Rockford and Annandale.

Beyond the conference title, the section goes through one team: Marshall.

The Tigers are the three-time defending Section 3AA champions. The Wildcats would’ve played Marshall in the section final last season, but were upset the round before by Minnewaska. “We’ve been focusing on the conference so far, but towards the end of season, that’ll be definitely something we’ll talk about as we’re getting ready to move into the postseason,” Schoumaker said. “The girls were really looking forward to and kind of expecting to see Marshall at the end of last season, but then we got upset and that didn’t happen. So I’m sure that’s a match they would like to have a chance at again.”

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Litchfield's Olivia Holmgren reaches out to hit the ball during the first set of Thursday's Wright County Conference match against New London-Spicer at Litchfield High School. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

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