WINONA LAKE – Grace’s volleyball team is a program on the rise.
Under head coach Katie Van Hofwegen, the Lady Lancers have been consistently strong. In the past two years, Grace has won at least 22 games, finished in the top four of the Crossroads League and qualified for NCCAA Nationals twice in a row.
The Lady Lancers will need to balance the departures of three dynamic players and the addition of key newcomers to reach similar achievements in 2019.
“So far I’m pleased with where we are. I’m excited for the season,” Van Hofwegen said. “We’ll be a young team since we graduated big pieces, but we have a lot of potential. Our goal is to play our best ball in October and November.”
Grace lost a trio of heavy hitters from last year, including NAIA All-American Caylie Teel who was the Crossroads League Player of the Year with 519 kills and 553 digs. Teel, along with fellow graduates Kelsee Zuidema and Marta Bleed, represent Grace’s three top attackers from a year ago and accounted for nearly two-thirds of the team’s kills.
But the Lady Lancers still return a wealth of talent, led by NAIA All-American setter Alexa Hill. The senior setter has over 3,000 assists in her career and sets the tone for the rest of the offense. Van Hofwegen noted that Hill’s leadership would undoubtedly help the Lady Lancers’ younger hitters.
“No matter what [Hill] is doing, she’s always giving her best effort,” Van Hofwegen said. “She’s never flashy, but she’s always trying to get better and pushing her teammates to grow. On the court and off, she’s just steady. As a setter, that’s exactly what you want.”
Van Hofwegen brought in six freshmen to compete for playing time this fall. Anna Frey was a highly recruited 5-foot-11 outside hitter from Carroll High School. Fellow freshmen Katie Swanson (5-10, Warsaw) and Jadyn Block (5-9, Deer Creek – Ill.) will also seek to contribute as outside hitters.
Freshman Corynne Aelker comes to Grace from Longwood, Fla., and the right-side hitter has already impressed as one of the best blockers on the squad.
Autumn Deshetsky will have the luxury of learning the setting position under an All-American (Hill) as a freshman, and Van Hofwegen commented how quick and composed she was directing the offense during the preseason.
Grace has three middle hitters on the roster, all of whom were letterwinners last fall. Makaela Lochmueller is the top returning attacker after racking up 244 kills on a .229 percentage in 2018.
Hanna Leach battled through injury to play in 27 matches as a freshman, and Makayla Bell is transitioning to the middle after seeing substantial minutes as a back row player last year.
Van Hofwegen was impressed with how hard Bell had worked during the summer and said that “she is hitting the ball well right now. She is smart and has even better court awareness after playing back row last year.”
Senior Deborah Michalski and junior Gabbey Harrington also figure to contribute on the offensive end. Harrington, who can also set, is a hard-swinging right side hitter.
Michalski was described as the glue of the team, a player who “puts the team first and makes it her goal to push and encourage her teammates,” in Van Hofwegen’s words.
On the defensive end, Grace boasts an experienced unit. Van Hofwegen, a former back row player herself in college, was excited for the team’s defensive depth.
“This group is determined to be successful. We will have several people compete for the libero position. I fully expect our ball control and defense to give us a chance in every match we play.”
Junior Gina Novotny served as the primary libero a season ago and amassed 695 digs (4.6/set), which ranked No. 24 in the NAIA. Emily Sharp has “been playing some of her best volleyball right now,” according to Van Hofwegen, and seems fully recovered from an ACL injury.
Caroline Mayer was a surprise addition to the team last year, joining the squad two weeks before preseason. Since then, the Warsaw Tiger graduate has entrenched herself as a valuable rotation player who will be a key figure in the back row or as an outside hitter.
Grace Erwin, a freshman defensive specialist from East Noble High School, is a competitive addition to the defense who will likely see court time as well.
Grace’s team building started a week earlier than usual with a mission trip to the Dominican Republican in July. While there, the Lady Lancers saw a boost in team unity and a collective desire to deepen their spiritual faith.
“This team has lots of potential. We still have key people in place for stability, but it will be fun to see who steps up to fill the roles we need,” Van Hofwegen said. “We have high expectations for our level of play, and we’ll need to buy into our team philosophy this year to be successful.”
The Lady Lancers start the season at home this week, hosting the Lancer Classic on Friday and Saturday at the Manahan Orthopaedic Capital Center.