BY ROB LAPLANTE
Sometimes the best offense is a team’s best defense. Said could be true for this year’s version of the St. Michael-Albertville volleyball team.
With seven varsity players returning, including all-conference senior captain’s Becky Hackenmueller and Candice Yager, experience is on the side of head coach Ryan Dehnel.
Senior Paige O’Conner was an all-conference honorable mention a year ago while playing the role of libero – a defensive specialist. O’Conner will give way this season to Yager, who will assume the libero position. Yager is a strong defender who will play volleyball next year at the University of North Dakota.
“Candice is kind of our competitive motor,” Dehnel said. “She’s real competitive and smart on the court. She’s our best defensive player.”
The Knights graduated five seniors, including offensive standout Erin Hoffard, who solidified the right side of the court. Dehnel said he expects big things this season from Hackenmueller, a 5-foot-10 middle hitter.
“Becky is a great athlete who has played every position for us except defensive specialist,” he said. “She is our best offensive player.”
With Hackenmueller being one of the tallest girls on the team, Dehnel said he know his team will have to work that much harder for points.
Junior Courtney Wooters and senior Jenny Olejar are also experienced middle hitters. Sophomore Malissa LeClaire returns for her second consecutive season as the team’s primary setter.
“We won’t be real tall, but we have some good athletes at every position,” Dehnel said. “We’ll be giving up size to most teams, but our quickness on the court should allow us to compete with a lot of teams.”
The Knights are coming off a season where they finished tied for first with Buffalo in the Mississippi 8. They posted a 5-1 conference record and finished 17-13 overall, losing 3-0 to Totino-Grace in the Section 5AAA semifinal.
“Last year we beat almost every team we were supposed to beat,” Dehnel said. “We played some teams in 3A that were a little above us and those are the matches we lost.”
STMA opened with a pair of road scrimmages against Minnetonka and North St. Paul. The season opener isn’t until Sept. 6, at home against Rogers. They will play three matches in three consecutive days, with the Marshall Invitational Sept. 7-8.
With a lot of core players returning, Dehnel said he expects a shot at getting even further than they did last year.
“Because of our size, we have to play better defense than we did in the past,” Dehnel said. “But we have the experience and a lot of good athletes. This is probably the best team I’ve had since I’ve been here.”