By Brandon Folsom - Gaylord Herald Times Sports Editor
JOHANNESBURG – Let's take care of our Ski Valley games first and worry about the Class C district tournament when it gets here.
That's the approach the Johannesburg-Lewiston volleyball team is taking this season, which begins with a home tournament Thursday, Aug. 23.
The Cardinals are rebuilding after graduating all-region players Brittney McKenney and Alicia Korff from their 13-25-3 team last year. They return four players who saw significant court time, including setter Jessie Marlatt who set a school record by averaging 6.1 assists per game.
What the team lacks in "heavy hitters," it makes up for with scrappy play, 10th-year coach Kristine Peppin said Tuesday night. Its No. 1 goal is to take care of business in conference and knock off some teams that have had its number the past few years.
"We're just going to take each week as it comes," Peppin said. "We want to focus on our conference games and really improve on that. A couple of the girls said specifically they really want to beat Forest Area, which we haven't done in a LONG time. They want to challenge some of these conference teams."
Tara Madej and Amelia Lawrence return as J-L's middle hitters. Twins Alyce and Arielle Vermilya will play on the outside. Bri Matson and Amanda Korff will also help on offense.
"Tara's going to have a big role, and we expect a lot of things out of her in the middle," Peppin said. "She showed a lot of promise in the pre-season, hitting hard.
"Amelia has worked hard on her repertoire of hits. They're not just straight down the middle. She's working on beating players on back sets and slides, and she's trying to really have a variety of hits to give her the best chance to get a kill."
Defensively, Katie Kobylczak takes over for McKenney as the libero, while freshman Delaney Hogel did enough this summer to secure a spot in the back row for the Cardinals.
"Katie has been very talkative with leadership in the back row," Peppin said.
"Delaney Hogel is kind of an unexpected person we ended up bringing up. We had a spot where we needed a back-row player, and she came with us to a couple of scrimmages in June, and she showed promise. We went to a Pellston scrimmage, and she kept up in the back row. She did alright serving, so she'll be able to get her feet wet in the back row. She was setting in middle school, but with us, she'll fill a libero role, too."
J-L has placed an emphasis on serving to set up its offense. It has also worked on digging challenging balls.
"It's promising," Peppin added. "The girls – from the seniors down to the freshman – are hard workers. I think they're going to be one of the scrappiest teams around, and that hasn't been our tradition necessarily. We've kind of relied on heavy hitters and talkative players.
"These girls are willing to hit the floor and go for it. They have nothing to lose. They're going to be loud, aggressive and go for the ball. If they can keep that mentality that way – like, 'We can do this,' and, 'We can work hard.' – I think we'll be competitive."
While J-L is almost two years removed from a district championship, it knows it has a tough playoff waiting for it at the end of the regular season. It'll head to Charlevoix and play in a bracket with the host Rayders, East Jordan, Harbor Springs, Inland Lakes and Rogers City.
If the Cardinals can play how Peppin expects, which is scrappy, and show improvement in the Ski Valley, they could be competitive in the postseason.
"Who knows who we can hang with this year if we play scrappy?" Peppin said. "We're not going to be powerhouse hitters, but if we can dig and dig and dig and keep swinging, whoever has the fewest mistakes at the end of the day can come out with the win."
2017 Record: 13-25-3 (2-6 SVC)
2017 Finish: Lost to Lincoln Alcona 3-1 in Class C district final
Key Losses: Brittney McKenney, Alicia Korff, Deanna Miller
Key Returners: Jessie Marlatt, Tara Madej, Amelia Lawrence
No. - Name - Grade - Pos. - Height
0 - Katie Kobylczak - 12th - DS/L - 5-3
1 - Alyce Vermilya - 11th - OH - 5-6
2 - Jessie Marlatt - 11th - S - 5-1
3 - Arielle Vermilya - 11th - OH - 5-6
6 - Delaney Hogel - 9th - DS - 5-4
7 - Amanda Korff - 10th - RH - 5-5
8 - Bri Matson - 11th - OH - 5-5
9 - Amelia Lawrence - 12th - MH/RH - 5-6
12 - Tara Madej - 10th - MH - 5-11
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