Lakeville South's volleyball program was hit hard by graduation. It had to revamp more than half its roster, which included six seniors who played a meaningful role in its starting rotation.

That hasn't kept the Cougars and coach Steve Willingham from having high expectations entering 2015. They opened the season ranked No. 5 in the Class 3A poll by the coaches association, and have since moved up to the fourth spot.

"We're young and experienced," Cougars senior Emily Hoff said. "We have a lot of players who have played at a high level."

Four of the five seniors on this year's roster — Emily Antolik, Allie Case, Payten Hansen and Hoff — figure in the regular rotation.

"Our seniors are great leaders who are committed to bettering our finish last season," Willingham said.

The Cougars fell to eventual state tournament runner-up Eagan in the Section 3 finals a year ago. It marked the second time in school history they lost in the section championship. The other was in 2011 to crosstown-rival Lakeville North.

"We want to reach our goal, the state tournament," Hoff said. "I think this is our year to finally make it."

Hoff is making the transition from a right-side hitter to setter. Sophomore Sydney Case opened the season in that position, but broke her left wrist in a season-opening 28-30, 25-17, 25-19, 25-22 victory over No. 9 Wayzata.

"It's definitely not what I expected coming into the year," Hoff said. "Sydney is helping me, and giving me feedback. I hope she has a speedy recovery."

Setting is not new to Hoff. She was the Cougars' setter as a sophomore on the junior varsity team.

"I was a setter when I started playing volleyball, and now I'm finishing my career as a setter," Hoff said. "That's pretty cool."

Hoff is not alone when it comes to playing a different position. Junior Halle Johnston is lining up as an outside hitter instead of libero.

"It's difficult, but it's always fun trying something new," Johnston said. She has already verbally committed to Iowa. "My teammates do a good job keeping me confident."

Johnston is part of an outstanding junior group, which also includes middle hitter Karly Lewis and outside hitter Jenny Mosser. Mosser is a UCLA recruit.

"We really count on our junior class," Willingham said. "They can do some amazing things."

They will have to in the tough South Suburban Conference. The 10-team league has three schools besides the Cougars ranked in the top five — No. 2 Eagan, No. 3 Prior Lake and No. 5 Rosemount.

"We have probably the best conference in the state," Johnston said. "We compete against the best teams in the state in our conference."

All of which helps each and every one of them come section tournament time. Lakeville South benefits there, too. It moves out of Section 3 this year, and into Section 1.

"I've been dreaming about the state tournament since sixth grade," Hoff said. She has been playing volleyball since she was a second-grader. "I'm hoping that dream comes true."

Ron Haggstrom • 612-673-4498