At this time last year, the Beaver Dam prep girls volleyball team was struggling mightily to find its footing under first-year coach Doug Pickarts, a veteran of the job with a long list of conference titles and deep postseason runs on his resume.
The total opposite is the case this year — and the proof is in the pudding.
It’s been barely two weeks since the first practice of the season and already the Golden Beavers have strong showings among a deep field at the Sun Prairie Invite last Thursday and Friday (fourth out of 12 teams) and among an even deeper field at a preseason tournament at Waunakee a week earlier (second out of 20-plus teams), as sure a sign as any that Beaver Dam is poised to make 2019 a lot more successful than 2018.
“We’ve seen a big improvement over last year, in movement, defensively, confidence — I think you’ll see a more poised team this year than last year,” said Pickarts, whose team opens Badger North Conference play tonight at Waunakee — the favorite to win the league title.
The Golden Beavers, who tied for sixth in the eight-team Badger North in 2018, have certainly shown that to be the case so far. Pickarts said he can’t recall a better showing by a Beaver Dam team at the Sun Prairie Invite, which has been in existence for about a decade, than the one turned in last week.
“It just kind of tells you where we’re headed,” he said. “We have some talented kids here — we have some kids who’ve put a lot of time and energy into volleyball and I think they’re starting to see that we’re trending in the right direction and we can be pretty good if we keep at it.”
Beaver Dam finished first in pool play Thursday, losing to Madison Edgewood 25-15, 25-22 to start out but then going 3-1. Then on Friday, the Golden Beavers defeated Waupun 25-7, 25-11 and Manitowoc 25-23, 22-25, 15-8 to advance to the semifinals.
That’s where the run came to an end, though — although following a 25-19, 25-15 loss to eventual champion Watertown, the Golden Beavers had a better showing in their second match of the tournament against Madison Edgewood, losing in three sets in the third-place match, 25-20, 16-25, 16-14.
Senior middle hitter Summer Salettel led the way in kills and blocks for Beaver Dam, finishing with 66 and 22 over the nine matches.
And there’s likely more of that to come from the returning second-team All-Badger North Conference selection.
“We’re looking for her to take that next step to being a first-team level player,” Pickarts said. “She had a nice tournament last Thursday and Friday and she’s a kid we’re looking to step up to be a more vocal leader.”
Alongside Salettel on the left side will be Hailey Allen and Sydney Hocker, who had 56 and 49 kills apiece at the Sun Prairie Invite.
“Those two took a step forward from last year,” Pickarts said. “And the scary part, in my opinion, is I don’t think either of them played as well Thursday and Friday as they’ve been playing.
“I’m expecting big things out of them.”
At 6-foot-2 and with a long wingspan, Paige Hodgson is another force at the net for Beaver Dam.
“If we can get her hitting up to speed, she could be a big threat,” Pickarts said. “She puts up a nice block and people are aware of that and have to hit around her.”
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Cassandra Luedtke also has made big strides as a hitter from last year to this year, Pickarts said. “And she’s a kid who always finds a way to get her hands on the ball.”
Freshman Kylie Wittnebell didn’t see much action at the Sun Prairie Invite but is someone who Pickarts expects to carve out a larger role as the season wears on.
“She’ll slowly see more and more time as she gets better and better,” he said. “She’s just trying to soak everything up.”
In the back row, libero Jessica Dray is yet another player who has taken a big step forward from 2018 to 2019.
“From the start of last year to right now is just night and day different,” Pickarts said. “She’s moving on the court, she’s covering, she’s reading — her reads are so much better than last year. She’s very active and finds ways to get in position to dig up balls.”
In fact, only Allen had more digs for Beaver Dam at the Sun Prairie Invite than Dray, with the former totaling 79 and the latter coming up with 71.
Kendall Wietzke is another back row player who’s shown big improvement.
“She struggled last year knowing what it means to be a good defensive player,” Pickarts said. “And this year, she’s diving and keeping things alive. She’s so much better — her movement is so much better than last year.
“Out of all of them, she might have had the biggest growth from last year to this year.”
Last but not least is senior setter Emily Schliesman.
“It hasn’t always been a smooth road, but her growth and her maturity this year has added to our success,” Pickarts said of the four-year varsity player, who had 139 assists Thursday and Friday.
There’s a lot of row to hoe yet, but already the Golden Beavers are liking their chances in 2019.
Taking second at the preseason tournament in Waunakee after finishing in the mid-20s at the same tourney in 2018 was all it took.
“I think that’s when the kids started to believe, ‘Hey, we can be pretty good this year,’” Pickarts said. “I’m not going to tell you we’re going to be the conference champs, but I think we’re in the conversation to compete.
“We’re still getting there and I think our kids really believe in what we’re doing. They’re starting to see some success and I think they like the direction we’re headed.”