FAIRMONT - The road to the Class AA state volleyball tournament is a long one, and no stretch of the season might be more difficult for the 2013 Fairmont Cardinals team than its first two contests.
"Right away we play Martin County West, who went to the (Class A) state tournament last year, and then a week later we go to Marshall to take on the Class AA defending (state) champions," said Fairmont head coach Brad Haugen. "Both teams will be good tests for us to see where we are at, but they are also going to be challenges very early in the season."
Despite the early hurdles, Haugen and his lineup are setting their sights high for the season. The Cardinals return veterans Kayla Lardy, Kristen Campe, Emily Kim and Kersten Shantz off of last year's squad that compiled an 11-12 overall record.
SPIKERS RETURN — Members of the Fairmont Cardinals volleyball team opening the season by playing host to Martin County West at 7:30 p.m. tonight at Cardinal Gym include, front row (l-r): Michaela Twitchell, Aly Eversman, Haley Korsmo, Kristen Campe, Haley Harder, Emily Kim and Morgan Seifried. Back row: Alison Subbert, Kayla Lardy, Courtney Mosloski, Madison Geerdes, Laura Tow, Kersten Shantz and Sydney Glienke. Not pictured: Tieryn Arens and Jessica Bicknase. (Photo by Leanna Becker)
"This year's team is different from last year's already. The way that they handle their mistakes and pick each other up, I think it will be very exciting to see how we do," said Haugen. "We have a lot of upperclassmen which is great, but not all of them have varsity experience."
Lardy, an all-South Central Conference and second-team Sentinel All-Area selection, will look to fill the outside hitting shoes of 2013 graduate Paige Bearson. Along with adding Lardy's offensive skill set, the senior also will deliver serving prowess behind the end line.
"Kayla is really excited to be stepping up into that senior leadership role. For a long time she was the younger player looking up to the older ones and now she is getting to do that for our younger ones," said Haugen.
Campe will use her athleticism to give the Cardinals a cornerstone in the back row as the defensive specialist, in addition to her offensive contributions.
Junior Aly Eversman and sophomore Haley Harder will provide the Cardinals' back row with added defensive skills and quickness throughout the season.
Shantz, juniors Sydney Glienke and Madison Geerdes, and sophomore Courtney Mosloski will provide some different offensive options for the Cardinals' front-row attack as well.
"We knew when this season started that we had spaces to fill, especially with hitters, but I knew that we would also have decent depth coming back to fill that," said Haugen.
The setter is one position that is already locked up for Fairmont with junior Emily Kim. After sharing time with older sister Elizabeth Kim in the assisting role last season, Emily will take over the setting duties this season.
"There was a point last season in our match against New Ulm when Emily dumped a pass over the net and it was a great play," said Haugen. "It was then that I knew she could run our offense and that she understood how to move the ball during the match."
With a multi-dimensional offense and defensive depth, the Cardinals will hope to contend with St. Peter for the top of the conference.
"I always get leery for the conference scrimmage to see how we stack up against the other teams, but I thought we played solid all day long. We also played intense and did well against the Saints in the scrimmage," said Haugen.
The Cardinals will look to take advantage of the Blue Earth Area Bucs, who lost two-time All-Area player of the year Krista Hassing, all-SCC selection Janessa Jahnke and all-SCC setter Monica Krieger.
"We know that our conference is still going to be tough, but it is nice knowing we don't have to face those three for Blue Earth Area again," said Haugen.
While Fairmont may not have the go-to player to end points in games at will, but it feels confident that it will be able to outlast the competition in long rallies.
"I don't think we have a Paige Bearson or a Krista Hassing, who you know can end a point with one swing," said Haugen. "But I think that this year there will be a lot of longer rallies where we are able to come out on top."
The Cardinals look to come out on top against the Martin County West Mavericks at 7:30 p.m. tonight in their season opener before going up against the Marshall Tigers at 7:30 p.m. next Tuesday in Marshall.
"This season, with our depth and the number of girls that we have that can play in any match, I think we have a good shot at the conference. Winning the section and going to state goes through Jackson County Central and Marshall, always, so we will have to beat some good teams if we want to reach the state tournament," said Haugen.
The path to the state tournament starts with matches against two state qualifiers a year ago, but will provide a good test for the talent-laden Cardinals.