A heartbreaking loss in last year’s Midwest Regional final led to tearful goodbyes. Despite this, exciting changes on campus are welcoming back the Bulldogs.
After saying farewell to the historic volleyball arena after last-year’s final regular season home game, the 2022-23 volleyball team is excited for fans to see the new Bulldog Arena, fresh incoming talent and some returning faces who are hungry to match last year’s successful season.
The team is looking to replace the roster of reliable players that finished their time with the Bulldogs. Losing all-conference players like Katie O’Connell, Samantha Hermann and Nina Gorgijevska left holes that needed to be filled on both the offensive and defensive sides.
“We have a lot of newcomers, but they’ve all been here to coach camps this summer,” coach Brandel-Wilhelm said. “They were here for two weeks, so I think the relationships and the foundation [are] already there.”
Having players adapt to the winning culture has been an integral factor in the continued success that Ferris volleyball has seen during Brandel-Wilhelm’s tenure, but it’s not only the volleyball team that instills this type of effort into their practices. The widespread devotion to family and grit has been present throughout all of Bulldog Athletics. Especially with senior Zoe Anderson, who is using her final year of eligibility to put on a volleyball uniform, rather than a basketball one.
Although Anderson has played basketball for the entirety of her collegiate career, it wasn’t that long ago that she was garnering attention for her volleyball skills in high school, when she lead the Rockford Rams to a state #1 ranking. Now, she’s bringing the leadership skills she’s gained as captain for the women’s basketball team to volleyball.
“Zoe is just exactly what our team needed. She brings a level of focus, and maturity and leadership,” coach Brandel-Wilhelm said.
Apart from the new faces that will take the court this fall, many key players from last year’s post season run are returning to the team. Sophomore setter Kaylee Maat finished the season with over 500 assists in conference and 1,200 in total. The talented young veteran will no doubt be a rock-solid component in this year’s offensive pushes, especially with her consistent performances.
Middle hitter Kira Merkle is another name to watch for this season. Averaging 2.4 kills per set through 30 matches in 2021, she tallied a total of 259 kills before the season ended. First year player Claire Nowicki, who would take over at times for O’Connell and Hermann, averaged over two kills per set and an impressive .318 hit percentage. Both of these players are going to be a tough task for opposing blockers this season.
With the first full off-season since 2019, the team has been working since the spring to get ready for a tough start to the season. Having only one and two-year players return to the squad can make it easy to get lost in all of the expectations set by the departing, decorated players. It’s up to players like sophomore libero Leah Bylut to step up into these new roles.
Bylut played behind to Gorgijevska and Brooke Norder, who both graduated last year, seeing action in 22 matches throughout last season. Seeing as she’s been able to learn from such talented players, a breakout out season is on the table for the sophomore.
Like any other year, the ability of incoming freshman to react to the learning curve and jump from high school to collegiate athletics can help push a team to the next level. Now that the team has just over two weeks of practice under their belts, it’s safe to say that they are ready to take on the challenges that the new season brings.
“We have been working really hard on our team chemistry and relationships on the court,” freshman Karlee Stoll said. “When I get a little frustrated with myself, I know that I have people that are learning new stuff too, and you just got to work through those things together.”
Knowing that each player on the team is willing to help each other get better on the court can assure that this team will have a fighting chance in each match this season. However, Bulldog volleyball fans know that Coach Brandel-Wilhelm’s motto is to take things one step at a time, which can be applied to everything coming their way this season.
Although it is not yet known when the Bulldogs will make it to the new arena this season, the uncertainty doesn’t appear to be having a big effect on the team’s mindset.
“We’ve been all over everywhere these past couple of years, so wherever we get put we’ll go there, we’ll practice, we’ll do our best to get better,” Brandel-Wilhelm said. “Maybe the gym will get done this fall, maybe it won’t. That’s not even in our radar.”
The volleyball season will kick off later this month at the Western Washington Invitational. Then, the team will take on some of the top premiere programs in Division II at the 2022 Charger Invitational to finish out pre-season play.