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Volleyball: Irish hope to carry over momentum

The Rosemount volleyball team started to settle into a groove during the second half of last season, winning 10 out of 11 matches at one point before finishing with a record of 18-11.

The team continued to find success, and learn more about itself, when it got together for the Southwest Minnesota State University camp in mid-July in Marshall. Twelve players — five returning varsity players and seven top JV players from a year ago — went through what coach Smokey Vitek considered to be a “real mental test” participating in a four-day camp in gyms that didn’t have air conditioning during the hottest week of the summer.

“It was a really good experience. We had a really strong camp and the girls kind of figured out what our strength and weaknesses are,” Vitek said. “They are focused on how to improve those weaknesses and leverage our strengths. It was good team bonding to kick off the season.”

The Irish’s biggest strength lies with a group of returning players who can attack the ball in the front row. Leading the way is a pair of sophomores coming off productive freshman seasons — Brittany McLean and Erin Slinde. McLean led the team with 217 kills and a school-record 46 ace serves last year and Slinde played all over the court, collecting 154 kills, 42 blocks, 109 digs and 232 assists.

“Both of them had a very strong off-season playing for the Northern Lights 15-1 team that took second at AAU Nationals and placed at US Junior Olympic Nationals, so they’re coming in extremely strong,” Vitek said. “They’re being heavily-recruited by a lot of DI schools and have been going to a lot of DI camps. Both of them are looking very good, so that’s exciting.”

Joining McLean and Slinde up front are Justine Buckmister, a middle hitter and blocker who had 52 blocks last year, Brianna Glaus, who had 77 kills a season ago, and Sarah Jacobs, who Vitek hopes can help replace all-conference outside hitter Katie Duff in the rotation.

Ellie Vraa and Katie Kalinowski also provide athleticism in the front row and are ready to make the jump from the JV squad, according to Vitek.

The deep lineup of hitters will be set up by either Slinde or Maddie Phyle, the setter from last year’s JV team, who Vitek described as “very high energy.”

“Our offense has a lot of hitting potential and some very experienced setters that can get the ball to them at the right time,” Vitek said. “They play well together as a team and bring a lot of energy to the court.”

The Irish have less experience to rely on in the back row. Defensive specialist Brittany Morrison is coming off a strong season where she collected 162 digs and 370 serve receptions, but the team’s leaders in those categories — Haley Zweber and Kim Correll — both graduated.

“We definitely have people who can step up into those spots,” Vitek said.

If the Irish can improve their ball control and passing, Vitek said they have the potential to move up in the tough South Suburban Conference where they finished just 4-5 a year ago. Their schedule features matches against defending Class 3A state champion Lakeville North, second-ranked Eagan, 19-win teams Burnsville and Eastview, and several other non-conference matches against state-ranked teams.

“We have an extremely tough schedule this year. Not only do we have all those conference matches in the South Suburban against some of the top-notch teams in the state, but we also picked up a North St. Paul team that’s ranked, a Roseville team that’s ranked and Hutchinson, New Prague and Faribault, who are all pretty strong teams,” Vitek said. “I think we should be able to battle most of the teams we play.”

The Irish begin practice on Monday at Irish Gym and the season two weeks later at home against North St. Paul.