NORFOLK, Neb. — The reigning four-time Region XI champions look forward to taking the court in 2021 as they hope for a return trip to the NJCAA DII National Tournament for the fifth year in a row.
Returning to the national tournament will be no easy task for the Hawks after graduating a talented sophomore class. The Hawks will look to key returners and a strong core of freshmen when the Hawks take the court in the new year. Despite the coronavirus pandemic that halted the season in the fall, the Hawks have a full slate of Iowa Community College Athletic Conference games scheduled beginning Jan. 24.
“I’m looking forward to watching this group grow,” head coach Amanda Schultze said. “We have some building to do as a team and some obstacles to overcome with the current situation, but I’m excited to see these athletes overcome it and get the opportunity to play.”
Sophomores Elizabeth Christensen (Stanton, Neb.), Carly Hirsch (Norfolk, Neb.) and Jamie Bonifas (Blue Hill, Neb.) will be heavily relied on throughout the season. Last year’s sophomore class left big shoes to fill as All-Region and All-Conference performers Caitlin Orton, Elley Beaver, Hannah Heppner, Makayla Davidson and Caitlin Kumm have all graduated.
Heppner broke the individual blocking record for most blocks in a game and a career. She also holds the record for most blocks in a single season. As a team, the Hawks were ranked in the top-15 for total kills at the DII level with 1,657 kills. They also ranked No. 1 for most digs in a season with 3,427. Altogether, they broke the record for most blocks, blocks per game, kills, assists, digs and digs per game.
As a team, the 2019 volleyball squad finished 22-18 and led the Hawks back to the national tournament in Charleston, W.V., which wasn’t an easy task after beating North Iowa Area Community College in the Region XI championship in five sets.
“I believe last year’s sophomore class left a good imprint on our program,” Schultze added. “They were great leaders, while pushing the freshmen and holding them accountable. They were a great example for this current sophomore class.”
Hirsch, Bonifas and Christensen return after seeing significant playing time as freshmen. Hirsch was a prominent attacker in her first year with the Hawks. She tallied 186 kills, 138 digs and 86 blocks as the starting middle blocker. Bonifas led the Hawks with 787 assists at the setter position. She also added 256 digs and 27 blocks in 27 matches. Christensen saw immediate action in many positions on the court, collecting 237 digs in 31 matches.
“The sophomores this year are going to have to do a good job leading the freshmen,” Schultze said. “They need to take imitative and show the freshmen what is expected.”
Former Alliance standout Payton Weber (Alliance, Neb.) will be looked upon to be a prominent outside hitter. Weber was a three-time letterwinner and two-year starter for the Bulldogs and was named the Female Athlete of the Year, Most Valuable Player and Female Lifter of the Year.
Makayla Forsberg (Laurel, Neb.) joins the Hawks after a successful prep career at Laurel-Concord-Coleridge High School where she was a three-time letterwinner and three-year starter for the Bears. She led her team to a district runner-up finish as a senior and was named a Lewis and Clark All-Conference member. Taylor Stelling (Milford, Neb.), Kinsey Skillstad (North Platte, Neb.), Hayley Hughes (Burwell, Neb.) and transfer Alexis Kapales (Jonesboro, Ark.) will push for starting roles at various positions.
“The freshmen are really going to have to step up and fill some spots this year,” Schultze mentioned. “We lost seven sophomores last year and we have some key spots to fill. I expect them to step up to the challenge and get comfortable in their role.”