After five years of building, the type of season Nekoosa volleyball coach Carla Leonhardt and the Papermakers have been aiming for is becoming a reality.
At 3-2 in the South Central Conference, the Papermakers are in the thick of the league race for the first time during Leonhardt’s tenure and it’s exciting, and even a little big scary.
“We’ve just started out like, ‘wow, and it’s been so fun’, but it’s nerve-racking because it could fall apart as quickly as it started because that’s volleyball,” said Leonhardt, in her sixth year leading the program. “With every win, the girls are gaining confidence, but because this is new to them, I have to remind them of all the good things they’ve done when they have a bump in the road.”
The bumps have been few this season, but they did experience one on Tuesday night in a 3-1 setback to SCC rival Wisconsin Dells.
In previous years, the loss to the Dells might have hovered over the team for a while, but not this group.
“I think we work harder than we did last year and we have a lot of the same people,” senior setter Brie Meddaugh said. “We believe in each other and we believe we’re going to be competitive in every match.”
So how did the turnaround happen at Nekoosa?
Leonhardt noted that this group has been working hard year-round on getting better at volleyball.
“They’ve been to open gyms religiously, a lot of them have gone to camps and last summer they played in a league in the Dells,” Leonhardt said. “And they won some matches early in the year that helped make them believe in themselves.”
Nekoosa’s first match of the season was a win over Port Edwards, followed up by a conference win over rival Adams-Friendship.
“Port has such a strong program, and to come away with a win there, made the girls excited to move forward and improve,” Leonhardt said. “And they always want to beat Adams in everything, and to get that one in the conference was huge. They just started off winning and gained confidence right away this season.”
In the past the wins didn’t come so easy. The best SCC mark under Leonhardt was a 4-6 record in 2010 and the worst, a 0-10 campaign in 2008.
“We’ve had good athletes the last few years and we’ve got a good supportive coach, but we’ve never put it all together until this year,” senior middle hitter Hailey Humphrey said. “I think we’re a program on the rise and that’s exciting. We’re working hard every day in practice and trying to play our best every match.”
Another reason for Leonhardt’s optimism about this group, and those to follow, is what the seniors are teaching the younger girls and the team’s unselfish nature, where none of the girls, old or young, are worried about individual statistics.
“The seniors have been incredible teachers on the floor, and I’ve never had that before,” Leonhart said. “And I’ve been impressed with their attitude about team as opposed to individual achievements. The girls are more concerned about improving and making sure missed opportunities don’t happen the during the next match than they are about how many kills or digs they have.
“The girls have been excited with how the season is progressing and we’ve got some wins under our belts,” Leohnardt added. “But this group is hungry and a few wins aren’t good enough, they want to win, a lot.”