Volleyball: "Baby Elle" fits right in with Cardinals
Willmar eighth-grader Ellery DeBoer leads all Class AAA setters with 390 set assists.
WILLMAR — After the departure of Lydia Larson to the Citadel of South Carolina following her graduation in 2022, Cardinals head coach Leah Brogdon set out to search for Willmar's next setter that would have big shoes to fill.
Eighth-grader Ellery DeBoer was given the starting setting position to start this season.
DeBoer had quite the summer leading up to her first varsity season with Willmar.
A 5-foot-9-inch setter, DeBoer helped the Kandi Elite Volleyball Club 14-1s win the 14-U Club Division National Title at the Amateur Athletic Union tournament in Orlando.
The Kandi Elite 14-1s went 13-0 in the tournament and DeBoer received Tournament MVP and All-American honors.
On top of her successes with Kandi Elite, DeBoer has been taking volleyball lessons from Sydney Hilley, a former University of Wisconsin national champion, four-year captain and all-time Badgers set assist leader.
"It's definitely how I am out (on the varsity court) today," DeBoer said. "Sydney is super nice and the best trainer that I've ever had. It's nice to have someone to look up to."
Hilley, originally from Brooklyn Park, received Big Ten Setter of the Year honors in 2019, 2020 and 2021. She was also an AVCA First Team All-American in 2019, 2021 (spring) and 2021 (fall).
DeBoer gained traction for training sessions with Hilley through her Instagram page named, "settingwithsyd." DeBoer saw that Hilley had available slots and continues to attend her sessions at MN Select in Maple Grove.
Fast forward through fifteen matches with Willmar, DeBoer leads all Class AAA setters with 390 set assists, according to statistics published on the Minnesota Volleyball Hub website. She has helped the Cardinals to a 13-2 overall record.
"Ellery put in a lot of work this summer," said Brogdon, who also was a setter at Willmar, the University of Minnesota-Morris and Valley City (N.D.) State University. "She's our glue. She's our setter. ... She's very coachable and that's what any coach wants. She's willing to change or ask questions. That's huge."
As the season has progressed, DeBoer continues to develop. People around the state are taking notice.
State weekly honor
On Sept. 19, the Minnesota Volleyball Hub announced DeBoer as the Top Performer of the Week. She posted a career-high 43 set assists against then-No. 7 Alexandria on Sept. 13 and 31 set assists against St. Cloud Tech on Sept. 15.
"It's been really cool because you can see the improvements every single week," said Cardinals senior outside hitter Sydney Schnichels. "You can see that her game is getting faster — even on defense — she is reading things faster. It's cool to watch her develop each week."
Schnichels, who is committed to the University of Minnesota, also started playing varsity volleyball in eighth grade and has served as a mentor to DeBoer this season.
And for DeBoer, she has the pleasure of setting up one of the best outside hitters in the state.
"It's so cool to have someone who you're able to count on to put the ball away," DeBoer said of Schnichels, who ranks No. 2 in the state with 271 kills. "If it's not a good set, (Schnichels) will correct me and it's not in a mean way or anything."
Schnichels was quick to praise DeBoer for her work ethic. She also thinks DeBoer will reach 2,000 set assists in her Cardinals career.
"She has a super hard work ethic, harder than any of the setters I've ever worked with here — and that's not saying they didn't have work ethics — she'll listen to whatever you tell her to do and she always wants to hear feedback," Schinchels said. "She works with us really well and always tries to give us the best ball possible."
Quickly adopting the nickname "Baby Elle" courtesy of her Cardinals teammate Gretchen Volk, DeBoer's confidence continues to rise.
Over Willmar's current six-match winning streak, DeBoer is averaging 31.5 set assists per match.
"It's been awesome to see her confidence build. I think that's a huge thing," Brogdon said. "Her teammates definitely help her out with that. ... The girls support her so much."
Despite her youthfulness, DeBoer has fit right in with her Cardinals teammates.
"Shes our little baby and she fits in just fine," Schnichels said. "Everybody loves her and she's been a great addition to our team."
Before her eighth-grade season comes to a close, DeBoer wants to better her 43 single-match career-high in set assists, beat the defending Class AAA champions in Marshall High School and make it to the state tournament.
"I think our team has changed a lot since the beginning of the season," DeBoer said. "I think we've become closer."
DeBoer's early success as a setter with Willmar does not come as unfamiliar territory for a program that has a track record of producing setters that continue to play at the next level.
Three former Cardinals setters — Larson, Carly Wedel and Esther Grussing — are currently competing at NCAA Division I or II programs.
Setters, setters, setters
Larson has played in four sets on an 8-6 Citadel of South Carolina team in her freshman season. She has recorded four set assists, one dig and a block assist in those contests.
A 2019 graduate from Willmar High School, Wedel is currently a senior on a South Dakota State University team that is 8-7. She has played in seven sets through fifteen matches this season with 29 set assists, 11 digs and two serve aces. Wedel also ranked fifth in the Summit League in 21' with 843 set assists.
Grussing transferred to a Division II program, St. Edwards University, this season after spending four Division I seasons at Ball State University. She has played in every match for the Hilltoppers, tallying 474 set assists, 154 digs, 21 total blocks, 18 kills and 10 service aces. Grussing is a 2018 Willmar grad. She is pursuing a Master's of Business Administration degree at St. Edwards.