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By ANDREW ROSTEN
PAXTON — The Panthers go into this season with three goals.
“We sat down together as a group, and the girls decided they wanted to set some team goals,” PBL head coach Kristin Oyer said. “They’re setting their goals really high this year.”
Last year, they finished witha record of 19-9. This year, PBL wants to get over the 20-win hump.
The Panthers also want to get beyond the postseason level they reached last year. In 2011, they lost to Watseka 25-14, 23-25, 25-22 in the Class 2A Hoopeston Regional.
This year, PBL’s goal is to, at the very least, win the regional championship.
“We definitely want to be the champions of regionals, and maybe even go all the way,” Oyer said.
That sentiment was shared by senior outside hitter Kandace Hofer, who was selected as a team captain this year.
“We definitely want to take the regional title and go as far as we can,” Hofer said. “I’m really excited. I think we’re going to go really far this year, and I think we have the potential to be really good.”
The Panthers so have a goal to win the three tournaments they are participating in this fall.
The first of those tournaments, hosted by CPCI in Cissna Park, will start on Monday.
The Panthers will host the PBL Volleyball Classic on Sept. 15 and the Sangamon Valley Conferenc Tournament starting Oct. 17.
“We just want to try and win all our tournaments,” senior setter Kayla Cowan said. “It’s possible to definitely do at least that.”
At least in terms of experience, PBL should have a good chance of accomplishing all those goals.
The Panthers are returning five players for their senior year. Four of those seniors were in the starting lineup last year.
“We’ve got some experience coming back on the floor already,” Oyer said.
Cowan, who set three school records last year, said the depth of senior experience should strengthen the team chemistry.
“We’ve all played togetherfor so long,” Cowan said. “The chemistry will be there, and our talent’s there, so there’s no reason that we can’t do well.”
While running the Panthers’ 5-1 offense last year, Cowan set school season records for service points (307) and assists (474). She also broke the single-match record for assists with 30.
As a result of this performance, she was honored with a membership to the all-SVC First Team.
“She’ll be leading the group again this year,” Oyer said.
Cowan said she hopes to play at the same level of success as last year, if not beyond.
“I’m just going to try my best, maybe try to break the records again,” Cowan said.
Cowan will be helped out in her cause by two strong outside hitters: Kortnie Schroeder and Hofer.
Like Cowan, Schroeder was named an all-SVC First Team member last year.
Hofer was given special mention for the all-SVC team, and according to Cowan, has shown some improvement from last year.
“Kandace improved a lot, so I think I will have no problem,” Cowan said.
Oyer said she likes the outside-hitter combo that Schroeder and Hofer provide.
“They are very smart players,” Oyer said. “They can hit shots, but they also have power, which is very advantageous because they can just hit hard when they need to, but they can also cut it and hit open spots on the floor.”
Amanda Ypya is PBL’s other senior returning starter. She will play the middle blocker position.
“She likes to run the slides a lot,” Oyer said. “Now she’s getting even better by trying to hit shots not just cross court, but also line shots off that slide.”
Although she was not a starter, Kaylee Genzel should make an impact as a returning senior. She will play the right side and outside this year.
“It’ll just vary where we need her,” Oyer said. “Probably on the right side.”
As well as Hofer, Catlyn Ekstrom won special mention status for the all-SVC team last year as a libero. She will be attending Parkland College this year, leaving the libero spot open.
Jori Maynard, Randee Newsom and Kristen Batte, all of whom are entering their junior year, will be expected to contend for the starting libero position.
“We have three really strong defensive players,” Oyer said. “They’ll be vying for that spot. Right now, it’s anybody’s ballgame. It hasn’t been settled who’s going to be starting there.”
Oyer said she expects some big contributions from her juniors as well as her seniors this season.
She expects, for instance, Kailey Kleinert and Brittany Heyen to fight for, and make solid contributions at, the middle hitter position.
“This group of juniors is a good group, too,” Oyer said.
“They’re very versatile. They can play in any spot that I need them to.”
After their setback in the regionals against Watseka, Oyer said her team is incorporating some new things this year to help the Panthers improve. For instance, they have incorporated more blocking drills.
“What we learned from that is when we see the good defensive teams, which Watseka was a great blocking them, we have to be able to adjust to that and either be able to hit over the block or around it,” Oyer said.