Stillwater made its first appearance last year and aims on making a repeat trip.
Stillwater volleyball coach Michele Parker is channeling the words of legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden to guide her players.
The message "failing to prepare is preparing to fail" is not lost on these Ponies, who made their first trip to the Class 3A state volleyball tournament ever last season and are wishing and working to get back.
"Just starting up in June when we had a camp, you could see the focus everyone had on the court," senior Erin Gaides said. "We have a goal. We want to get to state again and show Minnesota what Stillwater volleyball can do."
Graduation claimed a few key players, but Stillwater's core remains intact. Nine seniors return from a Ponies' team that was ranked No. 5 in the final coaches poll and lost in the semifinals to eventual state champion Shakopee.
Senior Adrianna Nora hopes the Ponies' first week of practices set a season-long tone.
"I feel like there is so much more energy than last year," Nora said. "It's probably one of the most intense tryouts I've seen."
Seniors Emily McDonough and Nora ranked first and second on the team in kills, respectively. McDonough, an outside hitter, set school records last season with 365 kills and 446 digs.
Nora, a 6-3 middle hitter and Baylor recruit, spent her offseason working with a strength coach to improve her vertical leap and explosiveness. She was a key reason the Ponies' set a single-season program record with 382 blocks.
Parker said Gaides' "hustle and determination brings a lot of positive energy" to the team, especially on defense. And the coach expects seniors Jen Houle and Mary Mikutowski to make key contributions this season.
Filling the biggest role is senior Meghan Olsen, who must replace standout setter Kayla Zeno, who McDonough called "basically the best setter I've ever had." Zeno left Stillwater with a school-record 2,021 set assists.
Olsen, who played in the back row and as the libero last season, is taking the challenge head on.
"It's a little intimidating because Kayla was amazing," Olsen said. "But I'm trying not to let it get to me because we are different people with different strengths."
Parker said Olsen's agility and quickness are rivaled by her court presence and awareness.
"We try to give her the leadership role because out on the court the setter runs things," McDonough said. "And she's doing a really good job."
Though Shakopee ended Stillwater's run toward a state title last year, one of the Sabers inspired some lasting confidence in the Ponies' players.
"Ashley Wittman told us before the match that we were the only team they were afraid of," said McDonough, who then watched as Wittman led the Sabers to a three-game sweep of the match.
And now many of those Stillwater players return hoping to reclaim their place among the state's top teams.
"There's still a lot room for improvement," Nora said. "But I feel like we can put together another run to state."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574