Walk into the Wayne State volleyball office, and the first thing you see is the end result of last year’s amazing run to the Final Four – the Central Region championship trophy.
With an experienced lineup, last year’s Wildcats made an amazing run and got within one match of playing for a national title. Now, four of those seven starters are gone and coach Scott Kneifl has gone from the known of an experienced group of returning starters to the unknown of finding replacements for four key players of that Central Region championship squad.
“There were a lot of great things about last year, but we lost four starters who started for four years, so that’s 16 years of experience that’s not easy to replace,” he said. “There’s been a little less sleep at night, but the girls who are back are solid and ready to go, and the program’s goals don’t change. We want to be the best we can at the end of the season and then make a run at it.”
While the Wildcats do have to replace several key elements from last year’s 28-8 team that finished a program-best third in the country, Kneifl’s cupboard is nowhere close to being bare with three key returning starters back from last year’s magical team.
Leading the way is returning All-American Alyssa Frauendorfer, who recorded 395 kills and a team-high 92 blocks last year and is nowhere near satisfied with just making the Elite Eight once in her career.
“I don’t want (last year) to be a once-in-a-lifetime thing,” she said. “Last year was a great experience and this year’s team is completely different, but our goal is to get back there. I think our freshmen are going to step up and we’ll put it all together and have a good team this year.”
“Having Alyssa back is nice,” Kneifl said. “She’s our go-to player and will continue to be, and we’re looking at switching her up and trying to get her the ball more at a different position. She’s a very dynamic player and is going to be a key to our success.”
Frauendorfer is joined by fellow senior middle hitter Alex Opperman (115 kills, 88 blocks) and senior outside hitter Michaela Mestl, whose 305 kills and 567 digs last year helped lead the Wildcats to their best finish in team history.
“I think the leadership with our seniors will be great,” Kneifl said. “Michaela and Alex and Alyssa are all back, and then you throw in a Div. I transfer with Natalie (Vondrak) and we’re really excited to see what they can do against other competition.”
The addition of Vondrak was a big one for Kneifl. She is a Sioux City native who played for three years at Div. I Iowa State before deciding to transfer for her senior year.
“We recruited her hard in high school and we’re excited to have her in our gym, even if it took five years longer than we wanted,” he said. “She really adds a different dimension to our team. She’s a dynamic outside hitter who’s already played at a higher level, so we’re excited to get her some experience in our gym and see what can happen.”
Other returning letterwinners include juniors Bree Ackermann and Erin Gross, sophomores Megan Gebhardt, Payton Ruhl and Maria Wortmann, and redshirt freshman Mariah Halvorsen, who missed most of last year with an injury.
While the Wildcats will have to replace two outside hitters from last year who were key elements, Wayne State’s biggest question marks right now will be at the setter and libero positions, where four-year starters will need to be replaced. Kneifl said that Gebhardt and newcomer Morgan Alexander will battle for the starting spot, and freshman Haley Kauth looks to step in at the libero position along with Ackerman.
Some of the newcomers to watch include freshman outside hitters Tarrin Beller and Katie Stephens and freshman middle blocker Jaci Brahmer of Pierce.
Despite all the question marks, Wayne State is still a team many on the national scene think will be in the conversation this year. They are ranked sixth in the preseason AVCA coaches poll, even though they are picked fifth among NSIC coaches.
“This team is really unproven right now, so those are some high, lofty goals,” Kneifl said of the preseason rankings. “We know we’re going to take some bumps early, starting a setter who hasn’t played the position since high school and a freshman at the libero position, but we have some leaders our there who can make things happen for us, so it’s going to be an interesting start to the season.”
The Wildcats will open with the Oredigger Classic in Golden, Colo., Sept. 2-3 and will head back to Colorado for the CSU Pueblo Steel and Silver Classic the following weekend before opening NSIC play Sept. 15 at Sioux Falls. Their home opener will be Saturday, Sept. 17 against Southwest Minnesota State.
The Wildcats have missed the postseason just once in the last 11 years, so the standards are high and Kneifl is hopeful this year’s team can get back for another shot at the national title this season.
“We have great kids in the program and they’re great players who will give it their all on every point,” he said. “We’re excited to get this season started and play somebody.”