There are a lot of question marks heading into the season for Stephen Willingham and his Lakeville South volleyball team.
Just a year removed from the program’s deepest playoff run, which ended with a loss in the Class 3A Section 3 championship match to eventual state runner-up Eagan, the Cougars return just three starters and only four players with substantial varsity experience.
To top it off, Willingham’s players have been spread throughout the country — and even far-reaching parts of the world — during the team’s traditional summer training periods.
“It’s been very different,” the coach said with a laugh. “We’ve been talking to our group lately and talking a bit about goals and expectations, but we haven’t had everyone there at one time. One week, one girl is gone at another camp; one of our players is doing a biological project in Africa.
“It’s great for the kids — great experiences. It’s just going to mean more of a feeling-out period for us this year.”
It won’t mean a step back for a program on the rise, though.
Last season the Cougars (22-8) finished third in the tightly contested South Suburban Conference. They won their first two section playoff matches, something no Lakeville South team had ever done. The Cougars switch to Section 1 this fall, which adds a little more uncertainty, but it doesn’t change the team’s mind-set.
“I know these girls talk about making it through sections and being the first group that did that,” Willingham said. “They want to make history and be the first group to do it.”
Lakeville South returns two of the metro’s best players in junior Jenny Mosser, who recently committed to play at perennial PAC-12 Conference power UCLA, and Halle Johnston, who committed to the University of Iowa.
The other returning starter, Karly Lewis, anchored the middle last season as a sophomore.
The rest of this year’s lineup will be filled in with “some very talented players,” Willingham said.
“We had a very, very talented team last year,” he said. “We lost seven girls and all seven are looking to play volleyball in college this fall. That’s a pretty good group right there, and it made it hard for some other girls to get in the lineup.”
Senior Emily Hoff, who played some varsity minutes last year, will step into a bigger role. Sophomore Sydney Case likely will be the team’s setter. Older sister Ali Case, a senior, also will get plenty of playing time.
Ali Case also helps epitomize the Cougars’ busy summer. Case is in Africa doing a biological study on cheetahs with a national education group, Willingham said. Add in that Mosser has been traveling throughout the country for her summer team, and Johnston has been in Europe with hers, and Lakeville South will have to wait a bit to see how it all plays out.
“You sit there trying to piece it together and think, ‘Well, maybe they could go here and they could go there,’ but it’s hard to really see at this point,” he said. “It’s given some younger girls a chance to step up and show what they can do and that will help.”