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Panthers volleyball squad has different roster, same hunger for a place at state

By Sue Sitter - | Aug 21, 2021

Sue Sitter/PCT The Rugby Panthers practice digs and other volleyball moves in the Charlie Hanneman Gym at Rugby High School.

The Rugby Panthers varsity volleyball squad has a different roster this year but the team’s hunger for a place at state remains stronger than ever.

For the first time in several years, the surname Blessum doesn’t appear on the list of varsity players. All-staters Brooke and Sarah Blessum, who are cousins, graduated with the class of 2021.

In fact, according to Panthers Coach Jessica Fritz, the team lost six seniors.

“This will be a different year for us,” Fritz said, adding, “We’re bringing back a good group of girls this year.”

“We lost six seniors but when you think of a team of 15, there’s always another group of girls in the works,” Fritz said. “We do have 35 girls out in grades 9 through 12 and 36 in grades 7 through 8. So, we do have big numbers again.”

Big numbers equal a large pool of players to develop skills for future championships.

Adding to the large number of players is the hope of returning to a normal season.

“We’re working hard,” Fritz said. “We’re just looking at hopefully having as much of a normal season as we can. We get to play in tournaments again, which we didn’t get to last year, so, we’re looking forward to a little more normalcy.”

“We’re returning some great players with Brooke Anderson,” Fritz said. Anderson was a finalist for the North Dakota High School Activities Association’s Distinguished Student contest for the 2020-21 school year. The outside hitter spent her distance-learning days in the COVID pandemic compiling “Voller,” a guide to North Dakota high school volleyball teams.

“Anna Johnson is another great player,” Fritz added. “She’s our libero. She never gets noticed. She’s our girl with the funny jersey in the back. People don’t really understand that, but defensively, having her with Brooke, Mykell (Heidlebaugh) and Peyton (Hauck) again, we have girls who are going to come back with some solid experience.”

“They’re very hungry after having lost the way they did last year,” Fritz said, referring to a heartbreaking semi-final round at regionals, where middle hitter Brooke Blessum suffered a knee injury against Des Lacs Burlington, shaking the Panthers’ confidence and sending them down in defeat. “All the stars were supposed to align and it would’ve been our season to go to state. Everything kind of went downhill really quickly at the end of the season,” Fritz said.

However, this year, Fritz sees promise in the Class of 2022 and newer crops of players. “In the camps they did over the summer, they were very hungry to be better than we were last year,” Fritz said.

“Some of the girls were able to get to camps over the summer, but we’ve also had weekly open gyms, so they’ve been able to do some things here,” Fritz added. “But our practices, we work hard every day. We’re trying some things that are a little bit different this year. We’re shortening up our practice time but getting more content in. We’re going to eliminate some of that lag time between drills or waiting in a water break and try to do a shorter, more impactful practice.”

“There are going to be days where they do practice for three hours,” Fritz noted. “But those are going to be some of those days where maybe they’re not working as hard throughout the practice, so it’s going to be extended.”

“We’re trying to get creative so we can get 35 girls quality time with the ball, learning the skills we need to be a better team,” Fritz added.

Coaches will assess the players’ court skills, however, Fritz added, “We’re really honing in on (players’) mindsets and our team values. The girls spent some time this summer on mental health training. I think that’s a huge portion that a lot of us are missing right now. After the pandemic, we learned that our mental health is almost more important than anything else. Our physical health is important, but that mental health is that next step. To be a successful person in life, you have to be strong mentally, too.”

“We know DLB and Our Redeemers are going to be strong (opponents),” Fritz said of the season’s schedule. “They’re always going to be strong. They have solid programs and are constantly building. We’ve seen some coaching turnaround in our district, again, so it’s always hard to gauge where these teams will be.”

“We’ve lost a lot of seniors in our district and region. Some of these teams we’ve seen this summer are looking solid,” Fritz added. “But, as I’ve said, we’re going to work on our team values and being coachable, trusting the team and respecting the team. Just having those team values are going to be a big part that’s going to set us above everybody else.”

Fritz expressed concerns about a possible COVID resurgence in the fall.

“It’s just going to be one of those seasons where we’re going to go with the flow,” she said. “We see COVID ramping up in other parts of the United States and we’re going to do what we can.

“We’ve had to change some things in our schedule,” Fritz added. “Usually, we have a later parents’ night, but this year, we moved it earlier so we know we get a parents’ night for those seniors. We want them to be recognized. Maybe it will work out where the season is 100 percent normal and we never have to go back to the way it was and I hope we never have limited seating again. We need to fill the gym while we can.”

At practice one afternoon, Anderson said, “I’m looking forward to playing with a new group of girls and experimenting with strategies. I’m just really excited to get to play with some new girls.”

Johnson and Anderson said they had “worked really hard” at camp and practices. Both looked forward to state.

“I’m really looking forward to having fun, playing with my friends from last year and hopefully going to state,” Johnson said. “That’s always the goal but we’ll see what happens.”

The Panthers will travel to Bottineau Aug. 28 for the Bottineau Early Bird Tournament. Play begins at 9 a.m. at Bottineau High School.

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