BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – They say it’s good to think outside the box, but Holy Trinity Catholic will keep the Box right where it is thank you very much.
Senior Emily Box is anchoring a core group of five seniors on this year’s HTC volleyball team that already has it’s sights set on a return trip to Cedar Rapids and the state tournament.
The Crusaders start the season as the No. 4 ranked squad in Class 1A behind perennial nemesis Janesville, as well as LeMars Gehlen Catholic and Starmont, a team HTC bounced from the tournament in the quarterfinals last year.
“The big goal for them is to meet Janesville in the championship game. That’s the elephant in the room and they want the opportunity to do that, but they know they need to do the work here to get there,” said Melissa Freesmeier, who’s entering her 26th year as a head coach.
“We have to take care of business in order to get to that level, but that’s there ultimate goal.”
The Wildcats sent HTC home in the semifinals last year in three straight sets 25-17, 25-20, 25-19.
Box, who was first-team all-state in Class 1A last year and led all classes in the state with 663 kills as a junior, took last year’s loss to Janesville hard, and has been putting in the hours to secure a return trip.
“Box is Box. She’s a stud,” Freesmeier quipped of the 5′-11″ hitter. “As a whole, this senior class hates to lose, and Box wears that on her sleeve. She’s worked hard this summer. She played for an Iowa High Performance Team in Tulsa, Oklahoma and got to work with kids of her talent level. She’s built herself as a player, and emotionally she’s getting stronger. She’s going to be the glue to this team. We’ve got a good senior nucleus, but she’s going to carry us and I think she’s ready for that.”
Freesmeier said she’ll run with five seniors, two sophomores and freshman in a 6-2 set.
The other four seniors who’ll see the majority of the playing time include Eryn Anderson, Mya Lawlor, Elyse Pothitakis and Taylor Boeding.
Boeding injured her ankle in camps in Nebraska prior to the start of school practice, but should be cleared this week, Freesmeier said. Lawlor is back after a knee injury sidelined her for most of the season last year prior to the postseason.
Freesmeier said Lawlor will move to an outside hitter this year and Elyse Pothitakis will handle the libero duties and call defense, while
Anderson will help anchor hitting and defense at the net.
But the setting duties are falling on younger Crusaders. Freesmeier has put freshman Kassi Randolph and sophomore Bailey Hellweg on the floor to take over for Maya Rashid, another first-team All-State performer from last year who was lost to graduation. Rashid was second in the state last year over all classes with 1,145 assists, and in assists per set at 10.6.
“Kassi’s been working hard all summer and following in big sister Ali’s footsteps,” Freesmeier said. “We watched her come up as an 8th grader and knew she had the hands. She just needed to get varsity quickness, which happened over club season, and she’s caught on nicely. Other underclassman that will see plenty of action include Katie Denning, Bailey Helweg and Claire Pothitakis, all sophomores.
In addition to Rashid, the Crusaders also lost Madison Mohrfeld who was always in the mix in the middle and Sam Hoenig who led the team in serving last year.
“First of all, you lose that leadership. Maya’s been our setter for three years. That’s going to be a huge loss for us. Madison was there for us hitting and Sam serving. We think that Claire Pothitakis and Katie Denning will step in nicely and help fill those roles,” Freesmeier said.
“Now we have two young setters in Kassi and Bailey. You take two young kids and put them in that spot as a setter and that’s going to be a challenge for us. Katie and Claire will help elevate our play up front.”
Freesmeier said Fort Madison, Mediapolis, New London and West Burlington will be very competitive during the season locally.
“West Burlington is a team to be reckoned with. (Sophomore Sydney) Marlow is very good and she can jump. I think we can get her to struggle with that big block, but they’re ranked 15th in Class 3A this year. Fort Madison is ranked and New London’s always good. So there is some good volleyball again in southeast Iowa.
The Crusaders kick off play Thursday with a trip to Danville with play beginning at 5:30 p.m.