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Sophomore setter Kaitlyn Zignego plays a ball near the net at the St. Croix Central Quad Thursday, Aug. 24, in Hammond. The Raiders beat Prescott and Stanley-Boyd while losing to host St. Croix Central. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Junior libero Olivia Goulette serves the ball in a Raider match at the St. Croix Central Quad Thursday, Aug. 24, in Hammond. Dave Newman / RiverTown Multimedia 2 / 2

The Raider volleyball team jumped right into action last week, competing in a pair of quads at Marshfield and St. Croix Central before playing in the two-day Menomonie Sprawl over the weekend at UW-Stout.

The Raiders, who return just three letterwinners from last year's squad, went 1-2 at the Marshfield Quad Tuesday Aug. 22, before winning two of three at St. Croix Central Thursday, Aug. 24, in Hammond.

In eight games at the Menomonie Sprawl Friday and Saturday, Aug. 25-26, the Raiders went 5-3, including a straight set win over Grantsburg to clinch seventh place.

Seniors Julia Bennett, Katie Cardell and Erin Christiansen are the only returning players from last year, but head coach Dennis Saathoff said he liked what he saw from the newcomers in the first week of the season.

"The overall level of team play has been very high for so early in the season, and I am quite proud of how they have performed against some very good opponents," Saathoff said. "It should be an exciting season."

Saathoff said the Raiders inexperience showed in its first set of the season, a 25-11 loss to Merrill at the Marshfield Quad. But they played better in a 25-23 loss in the second set. They went on to beat host Marshfield in three sets, taking the deciding third set by a score of 15-13, before losing a three-set match to Newman Catholic.

Bennett and Christiansen led a balanced Raider offense with 13 kills each while sophomores Sara Hoffman and Abby Richardson each had nine. Bennett and sophomore Kaitlyn Zignego dished out 30 and 24 assists, respectively, while junior libero Olivia Goulette led the team with 48 digs.

"This was a great early test for a very young team against teams that are perennially good programs and we did very well," Saathoff said. "It was nice to see the level of play increase as the day went on."

With the two-day Menomonie Sprawl looming on the weekend, Saathoff said the Raiders treated Thursday's St. Croix Central Quad as a high-intensity practice. The result was a 2-1 record with three set wins over Prescott and Stanley-Boyd and a two set loss to the host Panthers.

"Everyone saw plenty of playing time as we worked on different rotations to try to get the girls to mesh in game situations," the coach said. "Against St. Croix Central, Sarah Cable had no hitting errors, and against Stanley-Boyd, Grace Uchytil matched the feat with no hitting errors. Our primary service reception players, Ariana Zins, Goulette and Hoffman, combined only had two errors in this match, which allowed us to get into our offense more effectively."

Friday the Raiders opened the Menomonie Sprawl with back-to-back, two-set, wins over Altoona and Turtle Lake before losing in two sets to Oshkosh West. They ended the day by sweeping Prairie Farm, 2-0.

Saturday's playoff round opened with a two-set victory over Grantsburg before a loss to eventual tournament champion River Falls. After another close loss to Eau Claire North , the Raiders beat Grantsburg in three sets to place seventh overall.

"All of the girls on the team contributed to the solid results over the weekend," Saathoff said. "We played a lot of sets over the course of the week and the individuals are starting to fall into their roles and are becoming comfortable playing with each other."

The Raiders will open Big Rivers Conference play this Thursday, Aug. 31, at 7 p.m. against defending conference champion River Falls. They'll take the weekend off before returning to BRC action Thursday, Sept. 7, at Eau Claire North.

Bob Burrows
Bob Burrows has been sports editor at the River Falls Journal since 1996 and at the Hudson Star-Observer since 2009. Prior to joining the Journal, Burrows served as sports editor with Ledger Publications in Balsam Lake, Wis. A native of Bayonne, N.J. and a U.S. Navy veteran, Burrows attended Marquette University before completing his studies at UW-River Falls in 1992.
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