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Section 7AA volleyball preview: Esko's path more difficult

The list of Section 7AA contenders always is deep, but over the majority of the past decade only Esko and Hibbing have succeeded in representing the section at the state tournament.

This might be the best chance for a third team to crash the party.

Two-time defending champion Esko returns only two starters from the squad that finished sixth in the 2011 Class AA tournament. Senior middle hitter Amanda Belden and senior libero Kallyn Knutson provide the main experience for the Eskomos, but coach Desiree DeLeon is confident her younger players will come through.

"I have good volleyball players, they just don't have a lot of varsity experience," she said. "I'm optimistic."

Among Esko's departures was Stephanie Bandelin, the All-Area Player of the Year.

At Hibbing, where the school has known only one coach, Gail Nucech, since the program was formed in 1969, a two-year state tournament drought equates to decades for other teams. The Bluejackets were within a whisker of upsetting Esko in the section semifinals last season, blowing a big lead in the deciding fifth game.

"We choked; it was there for the taking," said Nucech, the state's winningest volleyball coach, with 872 victories.

Hibbing brings back six players with varsity experience: seniors Ebony Gray (a first-team All-Area selection), Katrina Phelps and Molly McKenzie and juniors Josie Greenwood, Kailey Wirtanen and Brylee Hocking.

"It's a work in progress," Nucech said.

After Hibbing's decades-long domination among Iron Range Conference opponents, Greenway broke through in each of the past two seasons. The Raiders' roster is highlighted by senior outside hitter Taylor Orhn, who enters the season with more than 1,100 career kills and 1,400 career digs.

Virginia, coached by Crystal Nucech-Duesler, overcame first-match jitters by beating Two Harbors last week and finds out tonight where it stands in the annual mother-daughter matchup against Hibbing. The Blue Devils primarily will rely on returning seniors Kayli Oakman, Cheyenne Pasch and Rachel Brinkman and hope to overcome the loss of junior middle hitter Justine Prout to a torn ACL.

Hermantown typically depends on a strong senior class and this year is no different with outside hitters Steph Kallberg and Jessica Wasbotten and middle hitters Katie Thun and Nicole Kienzle. Junior setter Emily Neumann also returns for the Hawks, who have been LSC runners-up the past two seasons after winning eight straight titles.

"The target's off our back now," coach Sue Wasbotten said. "It's definitely one of our goals this season to bring the Lake Superior Conference title back to Hermantown. The teams are very evenly matched across the board."

That includes Cloquet, which brings back seniors Jenna Anderson, Kristie Wappes and Abbie Anderson, junior Olivia Mayasich and sophomore setter Alex Oakes.