MARSHALL - At the onset of Dan Westby's 13th year as a coach with the Marshall girls volleyball team (his ninth as the head coach), there are few things that his teams have failed to accomplish.
The Tigers have reached the state tournament for 11 consecutive years and won four state titles over two classes. What they have not managed to do, however, is win consecutive titles. Westby's teams have earned top honors in the state in 2004, 2007, 2009 and 2011. But after losing just two players to graduation from 2011's state champion squad, 2012 looks like it could be the year to put two together.
"That'd be great," said Westby on the prospect of coaching back-to-back champions. "Certainly it will be difficult. We've got a lot of things that need to change between now and then."
Independent file photo
Marshall outside hitter Kenzie Beekman (14), shown swinging at a ball against a pair of Esko defenders in the Class AA state quarterfinals last November in St. Paul, returns for her junior season as the Tigers look to repeat as state champions in 2012.
Despite losing just two players from last year's team, the graduation of Jessica Baker and Morgan McKittrick presents the Tigers with a leadership vacancy on the floor.
Baker, now playing volleyball at the University of Sioux Falls, was a Jill of all trades for the Tigers in 2011. During her senior season, she accrued 217 kills, 301 set assists, 178 digs and a team-high 61 ace blocks.
"Jessica was pretty steady for us for three years," Westby said. "She was somebody that we could always rely on in the middle. She even ended up doing a lot of setting for us her last two years."
McKittrick, who will play basketball at Northern State in Aberdeen, S.D., recorded 339 kills, 379 digs and had a 96 percent serving percentage last season.
"Morgan, at the end of the year, was really one of the better players in the state," Westby said. "That was something that she had just committed herself to doing.
"Those kids are going to be hard to replace. But we've got some younger kids that are trying to work their way into those roles."
The reason for his optimism comes from the talent returning for the Tigers in 2012.
Leading the Tigers in 2012 will be All-American outside hitter Kenzie Beekman. Her 487 kills during her sophomore season were a team-best, and also placed Beekman on the All-State, All-Tournament, All-Southwest Conference and All-Area teams.
Joining Beekman in the Tigers' quest to repeat will be junior setter Sydney Griffin. In her first two years, Griffin has amassed over 1,000 set assists, with 645 coming in 2012. She also totaled a team-high 46 aces, along with 155 kills and 203 digs, while being named to the All-Southwest Conference and All-Tournament teams in 2011.
Junior libero Hannah Bennett, senior Maci Louwagie and sophomore Callie Graf also appear poised to figure prominently with the Tigers in 2012.
Westby is not shy of admitting that he has a wealth of talent returning, but is also willing to admit that the team has plenty of work ahead in order to reach its goals.
"We've been fortunate over the years to have a lot of (great players)," Westby said. "I think a year ago we relied on Morgan and Kenzie to do a lot of our scoring for us. ... We need some other kids to shoulder that load. I think we do have some kids that are looking to do that. But that's going to have to happen for us."
The girls are also aware of void left by Baker and McKittrick, but exude the confidence of natural leaders themselves.
"We just need to fill in their roles I guess," Louwagie said. "They were both vocal and we need to be vocal."
"They were the ones that got us going and now we need to do that for ourselves," Beekman added.
In order to achieve its goals, Marshall will need to play to its maximum potential throughout the season. That won't be an easy task considering the new faces and new roles, but the girls seem prepared there as well.
"I think we really tried hard over the summer to work hard as a team," Griffin said.
"We just have to get used to playing without (McKittrick and Baker)," added Bennett.
The defense of last year's state title begins on Aug. 28 when the Tigers host Alexandria.