After guiding a fairly young Althoff Crusaders volleyball squad to a 16-14 record last season, coach Sara Thomas is optimistic her team is ready to take the next step.
"We might not be the biggest team, but I can guarantee the girls are going to come out and compete for every ball, every set, every match," said Thomas, whose tam lost to Freeburg in the Class 3A Mascoutah Regional semifinals a year ago. "I see us competing well."
Althoff opens the season Thursday at Columbia.
The Crusaders returns plenty of experience up front with 5-foot-11 junior Briana Nowak and 5-10 junior Megan Seibel at outside hitter. Nowak was second on the team with 148 kills last season while Seibel was third with 109.
Both have been on the varsity since they were freshmen and Thomas senses a different maturity this season.
"They know have that varsity experience under their belts," Thomas said. "You can just see the difference in their demeanor and confidence."
Another key player up front is 6-1 sophomore Allana Bramwell, who is moving from right-side hitter to middle blocker. Bramwell jumped right onto the varsity as a freshman with 80 kills and a team-leading 32 blocks.
Thomas said Bramwell had a strong summer playing with the High Performance club team.
"She's had a year under her belt and with her club team she got great experience," Thomas said.
Thomas began laying the groundwork last season to move senior Rachel Kaltwasser from defensive specialist to setter knowing All-Area setter Ashley Gagen was headed to St. Louis University.
"We always had her running the same type of offense on the other side of the net knowing she was going to be put into this position this year," Thomas said. "We made sure she was definitely getting in and getting reps and getting experience with the girls. For her, the transition has been pretty easy as far as chemistry."
Also returning are senior Jade Sanlin (36 kills) and 5-9 senior middle blocker Mackenzie Burris (56 kills, 23 blocks).
Pushing for playing time are 5-10 freshman middle blocker Emily Myatt, freshman defensive specialist Katie Allard and sophomores Dani Hawthorne, Aliyah Gillespie and Rachel Mertens.
Key losses for the Crusaders are All-Area hitter Whitney Harris (Arkansas-Pine Bluff) and Gagen (St. Louis U.).