Publicly, Milan Mader wasn't ready to share with reporters his plans after finally coaching a state championship-winning volleyball team last fall at Lakeville North. Through dried tears -- and some new ones -- he issued the same uncertainty to the team in the locker room.

"It was super emotional," outside hitter Kelly Nizzari recalled. "He told us he wanted to come back, but he wasn't sure if he could. But we had no idea this would happen."

Mader was synonymous with Lakeville volleyball, putting in 35 years there and taking 14 teams to the state tournament. Last year was his first championship.

Somewhat quietly, Mader, 72, retired from Lakeville North in the spring with 806 victories, the second most in Minnesota history behind only Hibbing's Gail Nucech. Gone, too, was longtime assistant Doug Bergman, the man many figured someday would step into the head coaching role, and hitter Taylr McNeil, who moved to Eagan. McNeil smacked 27 kills for the Panthers as a freshman in last year's state championship match.

Reason to panic? Hardly.

"It's an exciting, new opportunity," Nizzari said. "We're ready for it. We're still a great team. The coaches know what is going on."

The new staff is led by Steve Willingham, who coached in Lakeville with Mader for 19 years and has remained involved with volleyball in the lower levels in the community.

Willingham said he owes his career to the veteran coach -- "I wasn't much of a coach and didn't know much about high-level volleyball," he said of his beginnings -- but stresses that the past is exactly where talk of previous regimes will stay.

"Yesterday doesn't have to dictate what happens today," Willingham said. "Just because they played well last year, it doesn't mean a thing for this season. They are aware of the ups and downs of athletics, and they love that part about it. That's why you keep score."

Even with McNeil and three seniors gone from last year's team -- including her sister Kellie, the Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year who is now with the Gophers -- Lakeville North was voted No. 1 by the coaches association in the Class 3A preseason poll.

Aside from Nizzari, the Panthers return four other players who saw significant time in the squad's run to the state championship in middle hitter Nicole Latzig, outside hitter Alyssa Goehner, setter Jessica Wolff (who played back row last year) and libero Abby Monson.

"We're not thinking, 'win state, win state, win state,'" Latzig said. "But I'm eager to see if we can do it again. We know it's going to be tough; every team in our conference is tough. That we've thought about for sure."

As the second week of two-a-days wrapped up, Willingham asked each varsity player to evaluate her performance through 14 practices. Quite literally, he saw what he was looking for.

"We're going to write our own story," Willingham said. "We're not the team that was here last year. That team was fantastic, [but] we're different. We want to be better than them. I don't know if we can pull that off, but that is our goal."