After losing to rival Central in the Class 3A regional volleyball championship last season, the Mater Dei Knights still finished 33-4.
That's a great record for some programs, but the bar is set extremely high at Mater Dei. The Knights own seven state titles, the last one coming in 2011, and they have made 21 trips to state overall.
"Yes, 33-4 ... that's a great year," said Mater Dei coach Chad Rakers, whose squad opens the season Thursday at home against another 3A area power, defending regional champ Mascoutah. "I'm sure yeah, a lot of teams would love 33-4. But I'll take half of those wins any time if we end up where we belong -- at state."
Rakers is hoping that regional loss motivates the current Knights. They are led by senior setter, three-year starter and South Carolina Upstate recruit Madi Haake, Maryville University recruit and senior defensive specialist Taylor Luebbers and senior outside hitter Elle Gebke.
"They've witnessed the last two years of not getting where we want to go," Rakers said. "I hope that it doesn't hurt them, that they haven't experienced some of those big games further into the playoffs. But I hope the hunger that they have to get there is fresh in their minds."
Rakers said he envisions Haake as a floor general from her setter spot.
"She really leads the team and leads by example," he said. "I think she's going to be our glue and the rest of the seniors, with the experience that they've got, are a very tight-knit group. I can already see a closeness within this team that I think will help us a lot."
Returning starters include Haake at setter, Gebke and junior Kelly Voss at outside hitter, senior middle blocker Lauren Donnewald, senior right-side hitter Chloe Beckmann and Luebbers at defensive specialist.
"She's coming off knee surgery, so we're kind of taking her back slow," Rakers said. "She was our libero last year and I assume she'll be back in that role when her body is fully healed."
Others expected to help include junior right-side hitter Erica Lampe, junior middle blocker Kat Maue, sophomore libero Erica Hitpas and junior setter Katie Haake, the cousin of Madi Haake.
Hitpas is the younger sister of former Knights state volleyball champ Alyssa Hitpas.
Mater Dei has stressed strong defensive volleyball under the only two coaches in school history, Chad Rakers and his father, Hall of Fame coach Fred Rakers.
"Their defense really gets me excited," Chad Rakers said of his 2014 squad. "It's their aggressiveness and their go-getter attitude. I want to be a team that is awfully hard to get the ball down against.
"I'm doing my best to follow in dad's footsteps the best that I can. I hear him more in my head now more than ever."
Fred Rakers died last November after battling cancer.
No matter who coaches Mater Dei, the high expectations remain.
"I'm OK with that," Chad Rakers said. "It may be easier to be the underdog, to come into a game and there's not as much pressure. But if you're not the underdog, you're doing something right and I'd much rather be the team that's favored going into a match than the team's that not."
Rakers predicted another highly competitive Class 3A volleyball season in the metro-east.
"Mascoutah's going to be awfully good and anyone that ever thinks about counting out Central is crazy," Rakers said. "Let's not forget about Althoff, which is always ready to play, and don't forget about Highland with (Alabama recruit) Hayley McSparin."