BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
CULVER — How young are some of the Caston volleyball players?
They’re so young that freshman Isabel Scales didn’t know their match against host Culver at John R. Nelson Gymnasium Thursday was a conference match until the post-match celebration in the locker room. But as for their ability to make adjustments, it might be concluded they played like veterans. Caston beat the Lady Cavaliers 25-16, 25-14, 25-14 just two days after losing in three games to Carroll (Flora) in their season opener. Four freshmen and three sophomores saw court time for Caston. Alexa Finke, Annie Harsh, libero Addison Zimpleman and middle hitter Scales comprise the freshman class. Opposite side hitter Bailey Harness, defender Kinzie Mollenkopf and setter Delaney Lowry are the sophomores.
They help bolster a lineup that includes juniors Maddi Smith and Abby Williamson and seniors Layne Oliver and Rebekah Milburn. But after the loss to Carroll, coach Melinda Shultz switched the lineup to give them a more varied attack. They had only one practice with the new lineup but were able to execute Thursday.
“We made some changes in the lineup,” Shultz said. “I actually made a lot of changes in the lineup. We were playing with front row setters, and I flipped it around. We have back row setters. So now we have people who are hitting right side too.
“I’m really proud of my team because we only had one day and like an hour and a half to practice that. And then after school (Thursday), we ran through it again, but they really took to it pretty well and were able to cover for each other. So I think that lineup is going to work out better for us.”
Oliver is the player with the most previous varsity experience. She is also first in the serving order. Her serve is a running jump serve with a bit of side spin, and she led Caston with 15 points. She is also an aggressive attacker.
“She has really worked on her leadership skills a lot the past couple years,” Shultz said. “The first game, I had her to where she wasn’t always serving first. And I was like, ‘Oh, that’s a mistake,’ so we’re back up to where she’s our first server. … I’m glad we don’t have to pass her because it just drops. And she is willing to do whatever. I take her out for defense, and she’s the loudest person on the bench, so she’s definitely a key for us.” Oliver’s serving highlighted a 5-0 run in Game 1 as Caston built an 18-10 lead. An Oliver tip, an Oliver ace and two Smith kills highlighted a 6-0 run in Game 2. Lowry had an ace, Smith had a kill, and Scales had a stuff block as part of a 7-0 run in Game 3 where Caston turned a 2-1 deficit into an 8-2 lead.
Culver deals with tragedies As for Culver, coach Andrea Berndt said the team has dealt with two recent tragedies within the last week — the sudden death of a student and the sudden death of a JV player’s mother. “Our team goals look much different now,” Berndt said. “Our team has just experienced two tragedies, and we’re dealing with COVID. … Volleyball is not the biggest thing on their minds right now. … We’re trying to get these girls to still play volleyball, still be out here and say, ‘Hey, we’re on the court. We’re going to play, and we’re going to continue to push through.”
Culver was also playing without Avery Garland, out with a sprained ankle. Only a freshman, Garland figures to be Culver’s middle hitter. Without her, Caston’s front row hitters like Scales, Smith, Williamson and Harness had unencumbered looks at the net while Culver was often hitting flat-footed and away from the net.
Another freshman, Grace Sieber, is one of the team’s setters.
That means a lot of teaching occurs in practice. Berndt said the team is a little “overwhelmed” in practice right now. “Last year, we graduated five seniors, so with graduating that is experience and some of our taller, more powerful hitters,” Berndt said. “So we’re teaching them their approach, their arm swing, their hand contact. We’re teaching them all those things that aren’t new to them. They’ve all known it, but it’s at a faster level.” Berndt calls sophomores Maegan Pearl and Luci Overmyer “dig or die girls,” a high compliment that entered Berndt’s vernacular when she played for Katie Felke at Rochester during her prep days.
‘Desire to win’
But the story might be the blossoming of Caston’s team.
Smith is another player who has gone from a quiet younger player to one who communicates and directs traffic as a junior. She might be symbolic of a Caston team that is growing. “They just have so much desire to win,” Shultz said. “Being up or down doesn’t matter. They’re going to fight for every point. They have more athletic ability, more raw talent, I think. They’re just willing to go get balls that other people wouldn’t be able to get. They want to come to practice. They want to work hard.”
They are also not taking their time for granted on the floor in these uncertain times.
“I think the whole COVID thing has a little bit to do with that,” Shultz said. “We were off for so long, and it’s like every day they’re happy to practice and be a team.”