Seniors headlining the Decorah volleyball team this season are (front, l-r) Ella Kittleson, Isabel Ihde, Emma Johnson, Cassie Wyatt; (back) Abigail Milburn, Emma Johnson, Avery Shelton and Lydia Ihde. (Photo by Scott Bestul)
Seniors headlining the Decorah volleyball team this season are (front, l-r) Ella Kittleson, Isabel Ihde, Emma Johnson, Cassie Wyatt; (back) Abigail Milburn, Emma Johnson, Avery Shelton and Lydia Ihde. (Photo by Scott Bestul)

After waiting months to get in the gym, the Decorah volleyball team has been staggering practices with smaller groups to better manage contact tracing if necessary, per the Iowa Girls High School Athletic Union (IGHSAU) recommendations.

“Overall, I just want this group of seniors to have a season,” said Coach Gina Holthaus. “Even if it’s not exactly what they envisioned a year ago, we have to have the attitude that each day we are in the gym is a great day to be in the gym and take advantage of each of those opportunities.”

In her sixth season as the Vikings’ head coach, Holthaus will be assisted by Jackie Reckward and Dale Wilharm.

Learning curve

The Vikings of 2019, featuring seven seniors with much experience, had an up and down season, which culminated in a fourth-place finish at the Northeast Iowa Conference (NEIC) tournament, going 3-3 for the day. During the conference season, the Vikes were 5-6 and ended the year with a 15-19 mark.

Regional play started at home with Decorah staying alive in five. Facing Waterloo East, the Vikings took the first two games, then fell in the next two, forcing a game five. Decorah regrouped and kept its postseason alive with a 15-8 game five victory. In the regional semifinal, the Vikings met up with No. 5 West Delaware on the road, falling in three sets.

Through 89 sets, the Vikings had 687 kills and 2,324 attack attempts, averaging 7.72 kills per set. At the service line, Decorah went 1,523-for-1670, with 186 aces. The Red and Blue provided 648 assists, 1,106 digs and 262 total blocks (48 solo, 214 assists).

Those graduating after the season included Brooke Berns, Katie Bjergum, Ava Holland, Amanda Kuehner, Ambria Pipho, Kaitlyn Schnitzler and Alexis Svestka. Pipho had also reached the 1,000 career assist mark.

With a letter

Holthaus has eight returning letter winners to look to this season.

Libero Emma Johnson was named honorable mention all-conference a season ago. She set a school record for her 360 digs in a single season and another for 28 digs in a single match. In addition, she served 367-for-386 with 33 aces. Senior Cassie Wyatt (setter/defensive specialist) had 222 assists and 150 digs for the Vikes. From the service line, she was 210-for-238 with 28 digs. 

Emma Nierengarten returns to the court as one of the Vikings’ middle hitters for her senior campaign. Last year she hammered our 75 kills and had 44 total blocks. Fellow senior Abigail Milburn (outside hitter) pounded out 57 kills and had 15 blocks a season ago. After sidelined with an injury for much of the season, Avery Shelton returns to her outside hitter position. As a junior she managed to connect for 57 kills and had eight total blocks.

Defensive specialist Kallie Mincks was big for the Vikings last season at the service line with a 202-for-208 mark with 12 aces to go with 100 digs.

Sophomore Amelia Dugger (middle hitter) connected for 63 kills and was in on 15 blocks a season ago.

Junior Mara Holland (setter/outside hitter) also earned a letter. She served 71-for-79 with 11 aces to go with 11 digs, eight assists and three kills.

Rounding out

Others looking to get on the courts this season are seniors Lydia Ihde (hitter), Isabel Ihde (defensive specialist), Ella Kittleson (defensive specialist); junior Annika Franzen (middle/outside hitter); and sophomore Chloe Reiser (outside hitter/defensive specialist).

“We return a large group of seniors, many of which have been varsity contributors for two seasons,” said Coach Holthaus. “They have a passion for the game and have a good understanding of what needs to be done. We also have a nice nucleus of younger players who will no doubt fill roles that will help us as the season wears on.”

Looking ahead

“I think every coaches’ biggest concern as we start this very unusual season is who is going to be able to play what nights. Who is willing to sacrifice some things or gatherings for the greater of the team?” said the veteran coach. “Then, after that who is going to be ready to step up and fill a roll for us when we do have a player that isn’t able to play for a couple weeks. One thing about this group is that they want to play this game; now we just hope that we don’t have too many disruptions once we get started.”

Coach Holthaus singles out Waverly-Shell Rock and New Hampton as the league’s preseason favorites; however, she believes the team’s ability to stay healthy and play hard every night will be the key to the Vikings finishing at the top of the Northeast Iowa Conference.