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Woodbury volleyball: Early tests revolve around attitude, energy, injury

Players and coaches for the Woodbury Royals volleyball team knew their early-season challenges would revolve around attitude and energy as they continue down a path of strengthening the program.

But what happened in the first match of the year was not what they bargained for.

The Royals lost a starting middle blocker to injury during a five-set loss to Duluth East. Promising sophomore Grace Beseman landed askew on an ankle and will be out for weeks.

Against Duluth East, Woodbury lost 3-2 Monday in a match that went the distance—19-25, 17-25, 25-23, 25-19, 15-3.

"Everything was clicking. We were playing really well," coach Laura Taggert said.

The team ran into a few issues with consistency. There were moments Taggert would describe her offense as awesome, and then a missed run-through or botched dig stopped a run. At other times, the defense was unstoppable and the offense wasn't quite there.

"Estella Khieu and Skyler Zilles picked up some hot hits," Taggert said, "and when our team got touches, that fired the girls up."

Amber Bretwisch set personal goals to keep her team's attitude positive and to run plays.

"We mix it up a lot," she said.

Taggert gives Bretwisch and fellow setter Carly Hawley, who run a 6-2 offense, a handful of plays the coach wants to see happen on free balls.

"They had some great stuff," Taggert said.

The middle blockers—Beseman and Alix Bookler—started to rack up kills. On Bookler, Taggert said: "She was definitely bringing the heat."

The team was playing smart on offense, hitting spots they had been working on in practice, the coach added.

Then, in the fourth set, the Royals were winning but started to lose a grip on the set. That's when Beseman got injured.

"We have high hopes for our middles," Taggert said.

So much so that the team hadn't rostered a third middle blocker and, in a pinch, promoted a 12th player—Lici Mixon—from junior varsity for the fifth set. The Royals had to take a one-point penalty to start the 15-point fifth set and ended up losing.

The Royals came out determined to win the match, Taggert said. "We saw what we needed to see."

Finding a middle

The loss of Beseman was all Taggert could think about after the match, she said. "It doesn't look good."

A trainer indicated that the injury likely wasn't a break, but Taggert said any ankle injury can easily keep a player out for at least a couple weeks as she nurses back to full health.

It was hard to see a young, energetic player of high potential lose her enthusiasm, Taggert said. "You're heart just breaks for them."

Bretwisch called it the highlight of the match when the team regrouped, dedicated their play to Beseman, forced a fifth set, and almost won it.

Three middle blockers are battling for the starting varsity role, as Woodbury prepares to take on Hastings on Thursday, and then Legacy Christian Academy, Minneapolis South, and North next week.

Tradition

The trip to Duluth—a long way for one match—is a tradition that started before Taggert took the reins last year.

She agreed, though, that bonding can't help but occur when sophomore, junior varsity and varsity teams all convene on the same out-of-town hotel.

"We're all a family," Taggert said before leaving on the roadtrip. "We're just hoping to fire them up."

Playing Duluth East is a good start to the season, because the two programs have similar game philosophies and expect to be evenly matched year in and year out, the coach said.

The Royals went to Duluth seeking to start the season with a victory, like last year.

"Anytime you can get a W, it makes it easier to focus on the little goals," Taggert said, "because they know what it feels like to win."

Character of a team

Setting the tone this year have been repeated reminders of the team's goals to move forward, and with the loss of a varsity middle blocker, the players' attitudes and energy will be tested earlier than planned.

They have, however, been preparing for upcoming battles with adversity.

At the practice before their annual trip to Duluth, outside hitter Gretchen Schweitzer, Bretwisch and Bookler talked about how they provide leadership on staying focused, executing skills, and continually making each other better at volleyball.

Schweitzer said the team is always praising the good things that happened in their practices and matches.

"We just want to keep improving," Schweitzer said.

Bretwisch, Bookler and Schweitzer are voices to be heard on the court, Taggert said. "We'll never be the tallest team. We'll probably be the loudest."

In practices, the team focuses on the mental and physical aspects of the game. They work on presenting high morale and keeping composure. They do movement exercises without a ball, to help improve their game.

Team goals and individual goals are daily anchors.

"We have some baby steps," Taggert said.

As a team Taggert hopes to develop a defense that can handle the likes of Cretin-Derham Hall, North and Roseville. To do so, the Royals face daily challenges in practice.

"We hope they meet the challenge," Taggert said. "If they don't, they do something that is physical but game-related that will help them get better at volleyball."

Toward the goal of keeping their spirits up even in the face of failure, the team sings during wall sits and races during sprints. It's typical to hear an elementary-school song ringing through the locker room. This team is are silly, sassy and smiley, Taggert said.

But they also bring intensity to the gym and expect a lot from each other, Bookler added. They yearn to know their teammates and the game, she said, and the coaches know this group of players can perform.

"I have confidence that these girls will keep elevating our program," Bookler said.

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