As sad as Columbia Eagles volleyball coach Kelly Landgraf was to see her outstanding senior class of eight players move on, she was already thinking about trying to keep the program at "area elite" status.
"The lasting feeling was we made an impression on the younger girls in our program that we were able to compete with some of the bigger schools," said Landgraf, whose senior-dominant club finished 35-3-1 and won Class 3A regional and sectional titles before losing in the super-sectional to Jacksonville. "It's hard to replace all those girls because they brought so much, even to practices and things like that. They were like guns blazing all the time and they set a good tone for our younger programs."
The season helped Landgraf win Belleville News-Democrat Class Big-School Coach of the Year honors. Savannah Wittenbrink earned first-team All-Area honors and Lynsey Wehrenberg was second-team All-Area.
It was the second-highest win total in school history, behind only the 37-4 squad in 2005 that finished second at the Class A state tournament.
An emotional come-from-behind victory over Mater Dei in the 3A Murphysboro Sectional championship match wound up being the high-water mark.
"It said a lot about the mental toughness of our girls from last year because we did get beat pretty handily by Mater Dei that first game and we were able to come back and win," Landgraf said.
Landgraf said seasons like 2012 are important to motivate the current underclassmen and others making their way to the high school program.
"They saw us being extremely successful, which made them more excited about playing the sport," she said.
Columbia opens the season Monday at Marissa, then returns home Thursday to face Althoff.
Among the two returning starters are junior setter Megan Huffman, who is already drawing Division I recruiting interest from Utah State, Montana State and others.
Huffman led the Eagles with 465 assists as a sophomore and also had 97 kills and 306 digs.
"It's just her volleyball knowledge," Landgraf said. "She understands the game and has good height and speed for a setter and is a really great leader. Volleyball comes pretty easy to her."
The other returnee is junior Kendall Roessler (129 kills), who moves to the middle after playing outside hitter a year ago.
"She's improved tremendously in the offseason and has worked on her vertical (jump) and gotten a lot faster and stronger," Landgraf said. "She's going to be a really strong hitting force for us."
Landgraf is injecting a pair of freshmen into the starting lineup.
They are 5-foot-10 outside hitter Kelly Metter and outside hitter Colleen Hamilton. Both are athletic and Landgraf called Metter "quick and extremely competitive ... willing to do whatever it takes to win."
Senior Rachel Ribolzi (101 digs) takes over at libero and senior Claire Hausmann is playing defensive specialist.
Others expected to help out on the front line are junior right side hitter Jordan Rippelmeyer and sophomore middle hitter Cheyenne Newland.
Junior Caitlin Touchette fills the other setter spot with junior Taryn Pena, one of the top softball recruits in Southern Illinois, at defensive specialist.
The Eagles have added Althoff and O'Fallon to the schedule and also will host a regional.
"We need to start understanding how each other is on the court, just spend time playing together," Landgraf said. "That's the biggest thing that we need to work on. This group is so willing to put in the time. The want and the desire is so there and that's important."