While others may see the 2012 Mater Dei High volleyball squad in somewhat of a rebuilding effort, the Knights are shooting for a familiar goal.
Another state championship.
They own back-to-back Class 3A state titles and posted a 39-3 record in 2011, Chad Rakers' first as a head coach. It was the seventh state title for the Knights, who are 151-17 since 2008.
"We're not going to lower our expectations no matter what the situation may be," said Rakers, whose team lost six seniors and several Division I athletes. "Last year and the year before's teams were both really, really quality teams. There were kids with lots of floor experience, even two years ago those seniors were starting as sophomores.
"The majority of these girls are finally getting their first starts as seniors. The thing that's missing is experience."
But not talent.
Six-foot senior middle hitter Emily Koelling (131 kills, 144 blocks) returns along with 5-9 senior outside hitter Bailey Kampwerth (103 kills) and seniors Ali Lampen (31 kills) and Abby Luebbers.
Koelling has committed to Division I South Carolina Upstate, while Kampwerth has committed to McKendree and Lampen to Lindenwood-St. Charles.
"Those four were the only ones that really saw any major playing time," Rakers said. "This group has been sitting behind (other classes) for a long time waiting for their moment and now it's here. Now it's all about handling that moment, handling the situations that used to be up to other girls.
"We're going to be an inexperienced older team, which is so strange."
Mater Dei's season opens at home Thursday against Mascoutah.
Rakers hopes the Knights finish their season at the state tournament once again. Can they bring home another title?
"There's nothing like it," he said. "Once you've done it once, you want to do it a million times."
Kampwerth and Lampen both are moving from right-side hitters to the outside, with Koelling and 5-10 junior Avyonna Kampwerth at middle hitter spots along with seniors Julie Deiters and Holly Hempen.
The setters are juniors Lexi Kohnen and Courtney Litteken, with Luebbers at libero and senior Chelsea Crocker at defensive specialist.
Koelling is an established go-to talent, but the other roles are still being developed.
"I still don't know who's going to step up night-to-night, but this group has kind of taken on a collective leadership role," Rakers said. "They're picking each other up together and I like what's going on with that."
Asked to identify a particular asset, Rakers believes this Knights' squad will be tight defensively.
"I think defense is going to be our biggest strength," he said. "I think there's going to be a lot of people licking their chops wanting to take a shot at us. I can tell you one thing -- we're going to be as prepared as we can be."
While the 3A volleyball playoffs are loaded with talent, the metro-east scene gets much tougher this season with perennial state contenders Central and Freeburg moving up from 2A.
Rakers and others have envisioned a potential heavyweight 3A regional that could include Mater Dei, Central, Freeburg and Althoff.
"I think it's highly possible," he said. "That seems like a silly regional, but who am I to talk? Every year Joliet Catholic and (Wheaton) St. Francis have to get through each other. Do they both deserve to be at state most years? The answer's yes."
Contact reporter Norm Sanders at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2454.