Still a week away from opening the season, the Althoff Crusaders girls volleyball team has already earned its first national honor.
The defending Class 3A state champions are ranked fourth in the National Athletic Association of Private Schools Division I Volleyball Poll, which was released earlier this week.
Althoff, which finished 41-1 in winning its first state championship, ended the 2017 season ranked fifth in the NAAPS poll.
Former Althoff assistant Tony Miner, named the Crusaders new head coach when Sara Thomas-Dietrich was hired as an assistant at Missouri State University earlier this year, returns several players from a year ago, including juniors Karinna Gall and Katie Wemhoener.
Other players returning who played key roles are Claire Franke, Grace Strieker and Mary Wessel, along with senior Lauren Borik. Miner said although it’s a great honor to be ranked, it also makes the bull’s-eye on the Crusaders back that much bigger.
“I know the NAAPS bases their rankings a lot on how teams do the previous year, but I didn’t want to look at them too much because this year is so much different,’’ Miner said. “I know that I’ve been here as an assistant and we have a lot of girls back who were here last year, but this is a new year and we’re still trying to figure things out.
“It’s a great honor to be ranked so high, but because it’s based from last year, we’re not going to look at it on how we do this year. It just adds another accolade based on last year that makes the target on our backs bigger.’’
Althoff opens its season on Aug. 23 when it welcomes Columbia to the Crusader gym at 5 p.m.
While Althoff does return a junior-dominated roster in 2018, several players, including all-state setter Louise Comerford, outside hitter Addie Burris and libero Annika Beal, have graduated and are now playing at the collegiate level.
And while Althoff has depth throughout its lineup this season, Wessel faces a challenge in taking over the role as setter on a team with so many offensive weapons.
“One of the things you don’t get with a lot of teams is that these kids just love playing volleyball together. They’ve grown up together and played with and against each other for most of their lives while in grade school,’’ Miner said. “Just the fact that they are back in the gym getting ready to start another high school season is exciting for them.
“They love to work hard. That’s one of the things you can’t teach. You either have a strong work ethic or you don’t. This group loves to compete and they enjoy being around each other doing something they love to do which is play volleyball.’’