The continuing improvement of Wabash Valley high school volleyball, particularly evidenced by the second Class 3A state runner-up finish in the past five seasons by Northview a year ago, could be tested this fall thanks to significant graduation losses among its three biggest schools.

Hit particularly hard were the two teams that combined for 60 victories in 2018 — the Knights, who will be without all-around star Jenny Lundy, defensive stalwarts Alli Cook and Megan Heck, state Mental Attitude Award winner Madeline Sinders and middle Kassidy Glassburn, and Terre Haute North, which relied on leadership from Indiana State recruit Chloe Mason and Saint Mary-of-the-Woods freshman Jaelyn Fennell the past four seasons.

New stars figure to emerge quickly, though, as the Knights open Saturday at Brebeuf, a four-way event that also features Evansville Memorial and Danville; Terre Haute South goes to Bloomfield that day; West Vigo, the most experienced of this group of four teams, opens at home against Parke Heritage on Aug. 19; and North hosts South Vermillion the day after that.

Northview — The Knights may not go 36-3 again, Saturday’s buzzsaw of an opening day for an inexperienced team being one reason.

But the cupboard is by no means bare for coach Erica Garrison, who says, “I know we’ll be competitive by the end of the season.”

Senior Kambree Lucas will be in any conversation for the best player in west-central Indiana and she returns after splitting hitter/setter duties with Lundy last year. Junior Katy Anderson, who by the end of last season was approaching the rarefied air that Cook and Heck resided in, will be the defensive leader this year and senior Maddie Kooistra, one of the two right-side hitters last year, will have a much expanded role in 2019.

That nucleus will be supplemented by a group of players who, their coach said, need to realize just how good they are.

“I’ve kept reminding them that we’re used to playing at a high level [in matches, but also in practices],” Garrison said. “They underestimate themselves a little.”

Varsity reserves last year were juniors Natalie Bell, Destiny Burns and Maizie Pell. Senior Izzy Horrall is a returning regular, but she’d decided to pass up her senior season and only returned to the team recently. Sophomore Rylee Richey wasn’t on the postseason roster last year, but she’s a 6-foot setter with potential.

Then there are four newcomers, athletes from other sports who could develop. Seniors Haley Richey and Makenzie Barger are basketball players with length, junior Olyvia Notter was a softball teammate of the Richey sisters who played volleyball in junior high and there’s also a transfer from Terre Haute South who has played a little softball: highly touted pitcher Lauren Sackett.

Sadly, for the second straight year the Knights have someone to play for. Rylee Rogers, who would have been a junior and another potential setter for this team, died in a recent automobile accident.

“She may have been the sweetest person ever,” said Garrison, “and you could tell how much she loved volleyball. Every day we break down [after the team huddle] with ‘All for Ry.’ “

The Knights are having bracelets and T-shirts made in Rogers’ honor (#allforry), much like they did during postseason play a year ago when Northview student Tyler Layne also had a fatal accident. The T-shirts will be good for free admission to the home opener against Terre Haute North on Aug. 22.

Terre Haute North — First-year coach Kelsey Patrick has a lot of sorting to do as the Patriots, 24-8 a year ago but stymied by state finalist Avon in sectional play, look for new leaders.

“We have a lot of depth,” Patrick said, and as a result, “We kept 27 [players]: 13 on the varsity and 14 on the junior varsity.”

The most experienced of North’s returnees might be a junior, defensive specialist Keely Davis, who has been a regular since her freshman campaign. Two more fixtures in the lineup look to be senior middle Abigail Wright and junior outside hitter Braxton Shelton.

Then the sorting process begins with three players with some varsity experience — senior defensive specialist Courtney Bullard, senior outside hitter Erika Funkhouser and junior defensive specialist Morgan Adams — and seven newcomers: senior setter Madi Halls, junior middle Chloe Southard, junior right side Ellie Staggs, junior defensive specialist Payton Ferency, junior setter Victoria Elder, sophomore middle Ella Bell and sophomore right side Grace Kraweic.

“We’re hustling in practice,” Patrick noted, “because they know nobody’s spot is set in stone.”

The Patriots also may go from a scrappy little team to a scrappy normal-sized team. Bell is North’s first 6-footer in a while, while Southard is 5-11 and Wright and Staggs both 5-10.

“We’ve got a little bit more height [than recent Patriot teams],” Patrick agreed. “I expect a lot of great things.”

Terre Haute South — While the Patriots have a small nucleus complemented by a host of upperclassmen, the Braves have a small nucleus complemented by a lot of youth — and coach Jessica Kent likes it that way.

Even her returning nucleus is mostly young. Michaela Cox, a 6-3 middle, is the team’s only senior and three other key returnees — 5-11 outside hitter Courtney Jones and defensive specialists Emma Hopper and Emma Fell — are all sophomores. And although the Braves were just 8-23 last season, that was a huge improvement over the year before.

There’s also just one junior, 6-2 Mikaila Sullivan, who was coming on at the end of last season. Then there are three more sophomores — defensive specialists Jade Runyan, Peighton Kennedy and Ashlyn Swan (Runyan will also set) — and freshmen Kaylee McDonald, a right-side hitter, and Reagan Ealy, an outside hitter.

“We’re a really young team, so we have a lot of time to develop,” Kent said.

Whatever the expectations are for the Braves, the team and its all-for-one attitude will try to exceed them.

“We have really good chemistry,” Kent said, “so I think we’re going to develop really well.

“I’m excited to watch them grow.”

West Vigo — Coach Casey Lee’s five seniors were freshmen when she became the Viking coach, and two of them have been on the varsity from day one.

Savannah McCoy, a 6-1 middle, has been a consistent target for the sets of Teryn Garzolini throughout Lee’s tenure and their three classmates — right-side hitter Julianne Parsons, outside hitter Elaina Charters and defensive specialist Sydney Dunkin — have also seen plenty of playing time.

There are no juniors on the Viking roster, but a trio of sophomores — outside hitter Riley Dierdorf, libero Jayci Scott and 5-11 right-side hitter Emma Fulford — are also seasoned performers from a year ago.

So although the Vikings were just 7-20 in 2018, there’s reason for optimism — particularly considering that a lot of those losses were close enough that West Vigo seemed to be a much better team than that record.

“The biggest thing [this year] is that my returnees all got playing time last year at the positions they’re going to play this year,” Lee said.

Adding to those eight returnees will be freshman Kierra Kelley, while two more sophomores — Ashley Dunkin and Erin Murphy — will split time between junior varsity and varsity.

“There’s no reason we can’t have a year like we had two years ago [when the Vikings were 20-9],” Lee said, “and do a little more damage against our big rivals.”

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