Linton/HMB's perfect 25-0, 2020 state title-winning team has proven to be, understandably, a hard act to follow.
"I saw it at the beginning of the year especially," Linton/HMB head volleyball coach Jaime Richter said. "I felt when the games got a little tight, I just felt like the girls got a little more nervous than normal.
"We're so used to people cheering for us but now teams were cheering against us more just because they were so excited to score on us. It's like everybody wants to beat us now because we were state champs."
Richter's 2020 squad rifled off a perfect 25-0 season to win its first-ever state title and while many members of the state title team are back in the gym this season, Richter said she noticed that something was missing from last year's squad. After suffering a 2-0 loss to Thompson at Central Cass' Volley in the Valley Tournament, the Lions' had the chance to reevaluate their level of play and attitude on the court.
"After that loss, the girls got much more determined in practice. In games that they don't take it for granted anymore," Richter said of winning. "I see that spark in all the girls' faces again. It's like every point is big, every moment is big and we're just going to make the most out of it. I see that spark back in them which they had last year, so that's awesome."
Since the loss to the Tommies on Sept. 11, the Lions have pitched 11-straight sweeps, across seven conference matchups and four tournament matches. The team is 14-1 overall and stands undefeated in the region and district at 8-0 and 5-0.
"I'm pretty happy with the kids," Richter said. "I have five hitters in the front row that can get hot at any day and my passing has been my same passing for the last three to four years. I feel like they're starting to really work on that quick offense and they're starting to hit on all cylinders."
While the offense has been clicking, even state champions have things to work on.
Richter said that one of the Lions' greatest challenges this year was rebuilding chemistry after losing a couple of key leaders from last year's undefeated squad. The head coach said she expects her team to have high energy during practices and at games, so she has taken to inflicting running on any players who don't display energy in practice.
Richter said the team's energy is affected not only by how much they talk to each other, but also by their body language, composure and the team's responses to both good and not-so-good plays.
"I feel like when they have energy and they start celebrating for each other I feel like those kids that maybe didn't feel like they were motivated or didn't feel like they belong to start feeling like they're wanted," Richter said. "You can see it in their eyes when their teammates are celebrating them.
"They start feeling good, the confidence starts coming up and all of a sudden -- they're jelling with each other and good things are certain to happen."
As far as skill positions go, Richter said that blocking has been presenting an issue for the undersized Lions.
"I feel like we really have to work on with re-sequencing and reading the hitters and making sure that we're finishing crossing over with the block because that's been kind of the whole year," Richter said.
While the Lions might have to be more aggressive on stops at the net, Richter does have two all-staters returning in Teegan Scherr and JayCee Richter.
Scherr, a senior outside, is the fourth-leading hitter in District 6 while Richter is the No. 5 at an even 200. Richter is leading the District in aces with 69 served up from behind the line. Libero Callie Hase is second in digs with 333 while Gracie Schumacher is leading the team in assists with 685.
"We just love to play volleyball," Richter said. That's the biggest thing. These girls love volleyball more than any group of kids I've ever coached and I think that's why they're so successful. It is because of the love of the game."
Richter's squad is not the only one who is loving the game.
For the first time since Richter can remember, District 6 has a tie between three teams, Strasburg/Zeeland, Napoleon/Gackle-Streeter and South Border -- for the second spot in the region standings. All three teams are tied at 3-2.
"It's been the most interesting year that I've seen for over 10 years," Richter said. "I mean, it's crazy because I feel like anybody can win at any given night. The whole region -- both districts -- are pretty even."
Carrington playing tough this year
Carrington knows first-hand how tough the Region 3 competition is this season.
"We've had some really tough battles and many close matches that slipped past us by only two points," Carrington head coach Megan Trautman said. "We appreciate that our athletic director puts together a competitive season for us.
"I think the tough battles and losses that we've had so far throughout the season will, of course, only help us during postseason play."
Carrington is 13-8-2 overall, 1-1 in Region 3 and 3-2 in District 5.
Trautman said the Cardinals' most recent "high" was winning their own Carrington Varsity Tournament. The Cardinals split all of our pool play matches but then went undefeated in the tournament bracket.
"These girls have a lot of fun together and know how to put the work in," Trautman said. "When they are aggressive and fearless, they can be nearly unstoppable at times. We just need that fearlessness to be more consistent."
Consistency on both sides of the ball could likely be aided by communication. Trautman said the Cardinals are always looking for new ways to communicate. The head coach said the team has also been trying to build upon confidence and believing that they can play with anyone in the state.
Speaking more technically about the sport, Trautman said the Cards have been looking to improve our consistency with blocking and aggressive serving. The head coach said she also believes that a team can never be too good of passers or defenders. The Cardinals always are being creative with passing drills and games.
"For us, our go-to players are Sydnie Grager and Haley Wolsky in the front row," Trautman said. "They are versatile and aggressive and have great energy. They are also very cool, calm and collected athletes on the court.
"My setter, Emma Rindy, has been a constant for us. She is smart and reliable. My libero, Mya Schroeder, has filled in the position nicely for us. She works hard and is always willing to listen and try new things."
While the Cardinals may be halfway through the season already, Trautman said she thinks the Cardinals are just scratching the surface of what could be accomplished this season.
"We have learned so much these first 20 matches and have grown along the way, but I know we have yet to play our best volleyball. We are working day in and day out to build our confidence, become more consistent and strategize.
MPB tallying top-stats on defense, still working on offense
Over in Medina, Jacie Connell's squad is still trying to find just the right recipe for success.
The Thunder is sitting at 10-11 overall, 4-5 in Region 3 and 1-4 in District 6. Halfway through the season, Connell said the Thunder have thrown out some solid defensive performances thus far. Sophomore Allison Thomas has regularly turned in stat sheets with dig counts in the 40s.
"They aren’t afraid to throw themselves everywhere and have really worked hard on the skill of passing and reading hitters' arms so they can move early to where they need to be," Connell said. "We also have a couple of strong blockers. Our two middles get a lot of touches to slow the ball down for the back row."
Ryleigh Martin and Abigail Reich are the Thunders' main threats in the middle this season.
Connell also commended senior setter, Lily Bohl, on her performance at the No. 3 spot.
While the Thunder are strong on the defensive side of the ball, the team has run into some trouble on offense. Connell said MPB needs to communicate better and eliminate mistakes at the net.
"We have been struggling with just being consistent with how we play," Connell said. "We need to do better at getting out of slumps. We have been really focusing on our hitting the past couple of weeks."
Connell's next serious test is slated to come against Oakes on Tuesday.
"These girls are such a fun group," Connell said. "They are very determined, hard-working, and always trying to improve themselves. They are all strong leaders on and off the court."