—by Todd Thorson

One of the goals that his year’s Roland-Story volleyball team has set is to break the school record for wins in a season (26). And from the looks of their opening performance at the Meskwaki tournament in Tama on Saturday (Aug. 31), that may not be such a lofty goal to achieve for this group of girls.

Everything went right for the Norsemen on Saturday, as they opened the 2013 season. They swept through the field in pool play and then claimed the championship in dramatic fashion. The Norse cruised to a perfect 5-0 match record, and didn’t drop a single set in winning all 10 games they took part in. A couple of matches with Vinton-Shellsburg, including the title match, were tight, but the Norsemen handled the close contests like a group of seasoned veterans.

"Our last set in the championship match was a come-from-behind win," said Head Coach Molly Geise. "You could see that our girls wanted it more than the other team. It was an exciting way to end the day."

The Norsemen won their pool play early in the day with a 3-0 match mark, downing North Tama (21-11 and 21-18), Meskwaki (21-4 and 21-6) and Vinton-Shellsburg (21-17 and 21-19). In the semifinals against Belle Plaine, the Norse had little trouble once again, winning in straight sets 21-14 and 21-12. In the title match, R-S easily took set one 21-13, but Vinton-Shellsburg made it interesting in set two before falling to the strong and poised Norsemen 22-20.

Trailing throughout the second set, V-S battled back from deficits of 8-4, 12-6 and 14-6 to forge ahead 19-18 late in the set. A 13-5 run brought Vinton all the way back and put them on the verge of victory at 20-18, with serve in hand. But the Norsemen took the next four points in succession, including a lengthy volley at 19-20 to tie the score. An ace serve by Kelsey Polaski (21-20) and a huge block by Alexa Whipple sealed the deal (22-20).

"I’ve known for a while that this team could be special," continued Coach Geise. "We have a great combination of team talent, and the ability to shake things off. And we all have fun together!"

Season Outlook

The Norsemen return two big power hitters from last season in first team all-conference players Anna and Lauren Himan. Anna, a senior, was a unanimous all-conference selection last year for the 20-11 Norsemen. Lauren is a junior. Setter Libby Faga, a second team all-HOIAC pick last year, also returns for the Norse, who finished second in the conference with an 8-1 mark in 2012.

"We have already added a number of new offensive options due to these girls’ experience and improvements from last year," commented Geise, who begins her 10th season at the helm of the R-S volleyball program. A key move for Coach Geise this season will be moving senior Jennifer Demiter from defensive specialist to libero, which will put her in the back row at all times during a match. Geise believes Demiter has the potential to be one of the best defensive players Roland-Story has ever had.

Newcomers this season include senior Schyler Polaski as an outside hitter and one of the Norsemen’s main passers. Sophomore Alexa Whipple, who is quick and athletic, will be the middle hitter opposite Anna Himan. Another sophomore, Kelsey Polaski, will handle right side setter duties. "Kelsey is one of those players that will go outside the gym to play a ball," added Geise.

"One of the strengths this year, besides having some hard hitters, is that we have so many setters and we are able to run our offense even if a team hits the first ball to our setter," Geise continued. "Defensively, we are playing confident, and our passing is allowing us to get a swing on most balls we send over. If we play aggressive and smart, we will be pretty tough to beat."

Rounding out the regular lineup will be senior Erin Nuetzman and junior Taylor Olson, who will share duties at the other right side position. And senior Molly Fink will be another quality setter for the Norse, and will also see time as a defensive specialist and server. Other members of the varsity roster include Kayla Johnston, Lexi Crutchfield and Chelsey Tinken.

"Every year it amazes me how the kids step up and fill the big shoes of past players," said an optimistic and eager Coach Geise, as it appears she too is ready to see this 2013 Norsemen volleyball team show what they can do.

Meskwaki Tournament Highlights

In the opening match against North Tama Saturday morning, Anna Himan led the Norse charge with 10 kills and a 12 for 14 attack performance at the net. Lauren Himan added seven kills, going a perfect 9 for 9 at the net. Kelsey Polaski had 10 assists, while Libby Faga had nine. Anna also served at an 11 for 12 clip, including three aces. The Norsemen won set one 21-11 and held off the North Tama girls 21-18 in the second set.

An over-matched Meskwaki team stood little chance against the powerful Norsemen in the second match of the day. Unforced errors in serving and in net play enabled the visiting Norsemen to literally embarrass the host team 21-4 and 21-6. The Norse didn’t even need much net action themselves to gain their points. Lauren Himan led R-S, going 5 for 6 in attacks with four kills. Libby Faga had five assists. Alexa Whipple was a perfect 9 for 9 in serves, with six aces. All totaled, the Norse issued 20 aces, nearly half of their 42 points. Lauren Himan and Faga each had four aces, as the Norsemen went 37 for 40 in the serving department.

The final match in pool play was against Vinton-Shellsburg, and proved to be the Norsemen’s toughest confrontation thus far. Anna and Lauren Himan led in attacks, going 11 for 13 and 7 for 10, respectively. Anna had eight kills and Lauren slammed home five. Schyler Polaski was 7 for 9 at the net, and Libby Faga had 11 assists. Jennifer Demiter dug out eight hard returns from V-S, while Schyler and Lauren each had five digs. The Norse served at an 88 percent clip, going 36 for 41 from beyond the back line. Faga was 11 for 11 in serves, while Schyler was 10 for 11, with four aces.

Sporting a perfect 3-0 record coming out of pool play, the Norse faced Belle Plaine in the semifinals of the championship round. Lauren, Schyler and Anna each had fine performances, as the Norsemen had little trouble 21-14 and 21-12. Lauren was 14 for 15 in the attack zone, with six kills. Schyler was 9 for 12, with three kills. And Anna went 8 for 10 at the net with six kills. Libby issued seven assists, and Jennifer had seven digs. Again, the Norse were effective serving, going 39 for 41 for a 95 percent success rate. Libby was perfect in serves at 10 for 10, including six aces.

The title match against Vinton-Shellsburg was a rematch from pool play, and again, it was mostly a tight contest. The Norsemen took set one 21-13, but couldn’t close the book on V-S in set two. After dominating play for most of the second set, the V-S girls battled back to take a 20-18 lead late. But the cool-headed play by the Norse allowed them to overcome a near-certain loss, posting four successive points to close out the final set 22-20.

Lauren Himan led the R-S attack, going 12 for 15 at the net, with four kills. Schyler Polaski was 11 for 18 in attacks, with five kills. Kelsey Polaski and Libby Faga bumped off nine and six assists, respectively. Jennifer Demiter and Schyler Polaski each had 10 digs. Kelsey was 9 for 10 serving, with four aces. Demiter was 8 for 8 in serves, and Lauren Himan and Alexa Whipple were both 7 for 7 in serves. As a team, the Norse were 37 for 41 in serves for a 90 percent success rate.

‘To see the girls on the court in game situations reassured me that they can handle the swings in volleyball," concluded Geise. "Our veteran players led us in most categories throughout the day. Anna and Lauren with their hitting efficiencies, Libby’s setting and serving, and Jenn’s passing and serving. I think there were some jitters for everyone (early on), and our newcomers all had contributing plays in the championship game, which was exciting to see."

With the Norsemen returning vital leadership and experience, and various newcomers ready to step up and contribute, the sense of "optimism" that most teams have in the early going appears to be moving toward "high expectations" for this Roland-Story group. As the girls are off and running, they are brimming with confidence, cool heads and poise, as the season gets under way. Not only did the R-S girls set a goal to break the season victory total mark, they would also like to beat rival Nevada this year, en route to becoming conference champions as well! And from the looks of their performance Saturday, anything is possible with this year’s Norsemen volleyball team!