Head coach Hilary Laidig knows it's time for her NorthWood High School volleyball team to contend for a Class 3A sectional title.
And after losing just two players to graduation from a 24-10 team, 2019 could be that year.
Laidig must replace the leadership and all-around play of the graduated Whitney Gessinger, but the Panthers return top middle hitters Maddy Payne and Kate Rulli, a pair of 6-foot seniors that could dominate the net this season. Payne finished last season with 309 kills and 80 blocks, while Rulli had 207 kills and 69 blocks.
Kendal Miller and Kennedy Hochstetler, a pair of juniors, will share the libero duties, while senior Caroline Mullet returns as the team's setter, after recording 867 assists last season. Juniors Ali Knepp and Alea Minnich will also be counted for some added offense this season.
"We will miss our seniors, Whitney and Riley Graber, but we are looking forward to returning the rest of our 2018 team,'' Laidig said. "We are excited to see what our defense can do and looking for some big offense from our list of returners. I know these girls are fired-up about competing for a sectional title, which this group has never done.''
NorthWood last won a sectional championship in 2015.
One of the teams that will battle NorthWood in the NLC is Elkhart Memorial, which has a strong and experienced group returning for head coach Jacquie Rost's 24th season.
While Rost lost her top three players statistically in kills, including All-Conference selection DeJanea Johnson, the Chargers still have a strong group of upperclassmen returning and have picked up Maddie Boomershine, who was a two-year letterwinner at Northridge.
Leading the returnees for Memorial are seniors Margaret Wiegand and Jackie Fernandez, along with junior all-conference selection Emily Anderson. Wiegand led the team by a wide margin with 766 assists and also in aces (46). Anderson led the team in digs and was second in aces, while Fernandez played on a national championship club team this summer.
"We start the season with a very experienced group with all upperclassmen rounding out the varsity team,'' Rost said. "They have worked very hard in the off-season, including both on club teams and summer practices together. This group has great athleticism and is anxious to add to the rich history of Elkhart Memorial volleyball and write their own memorable last chapter.''
By the way, Rost's record in the NLC is 112-14.
Penn returns to the local 4A sectional and likely enter as the favorite after a 34-5 mark and a run to the semistate in 2018.
Head coach Lisa Pawlak returns four talented seniors – Ally Hickey, Kylee Hixenbaugh, Bella Phillips and Molly Pooler – who could help the Kingsmen compete far into the state tournament.
In addition, junior Addy Kois is back after leading the team in assists last season (746), while sophomore Emma Hickey was tops in digs. Ally Hickey (251) and Phillips (267) were second and third on the team in kills in 2018.
"We are looking forward to representing our school and community with a high level of play and excitement point-for-point,'' Pawlak said.
Elkhart Central will battle Penn in both the NIC and the Class 4A sectional this season and head coach Yolanda Stahl has some key returnees back for 2019.
Junior Micheala Whitaker is back after leading the Blue Blazers with 206 kills last season, while senior Evan Hobik returns as a strong middle blocker. Gabby Garcia was second on the team in assists, senior Maddie Grimes is also back at libero and classmate Abbey Miller returns as an outside hitter. Stahl is also high on the talent of freshman Hannah Teich.
"I'm looking forward to a competitive 2018 season,'' Stahl said. "We lost some good seniors, but we also have some younger players that are stepping up. We definitely have the pieces to be competitive. This is a great group of athletes and focus will be the key for this team.''
Bethany Christian reached the Class A regional finals last season, where they lost in four sets to eventual state runner-up Pioneer.
While veteran coach Lois Mast must fill some holes for the Bruins this fall, she returns four very experienced players, including Jadyn Kaufmann, who enters her final season with 1,277 assists the last two years. Seniors Eva Sargent and Mariah Miller, along with junior Sadie Brenneman (340 kills last season) also return for Bethany.
"We're looking to have a very exciting season,'' Mast said. "We have a strong returning line-up, including three seniors who we trust will contribute with experience and great play. We also have a very strong defensive line-up with juniors Mia Reinhardt, Trami Nguyen and Maddie Chupp along with Brenneman providing quick, scrappy defense. We are excited to see what this talented group can accomplish.''
Despite losing three strong seniors and playing in the rugged Northern Indiana Conference, Jimtown should be a team to watch with nine letterwinners returning for coach Bill Stose.
The Jimmies posted a 14-18 record last season, including a 6-6 mark in the NIC.
Four seniors return to lead the Jimtown attack, Gianna Desimone, Gabby Desimone, Isabel Ortega and Ciera Thomas. Juniors Camri Garretson and Kendall Griffee, along with sophomore Cali Campbell should also be major contributors, while juniors MaKenna Betzer and Rylee McPhee also bring experience back. Stose is also high on freshman Jaycee Folkers.
"This team is very well rounded,'' Stose said. We're very excited to get started in competition.''
Northridge reached the 4A sectional finals last season and coach Jodie Steele has a strong group of letterwinners returning, including 6-foot outside hitter Molly Brown.
Seniors Kayleigh Miller, Makenna Myers and Holly Stutzman also return with experience, as do juniors Maddie Bender, Makenna Knepp and Brynne Gayler.
"We have a lot of experience and depth coming into this season,'' Steele said. "The level of intensity and focus in the gym is at an all-time high. We are understanding and executing the importance of details to our game and really excited for this season.''
After two straight sectional titles, Concord suffered through a long season under head coach Kelly Chupp.
But Chupp is confident the Minutemen can rebound from the 4-27 season (0-7 in the NLC).
"We are very excited about this year's team,'' Chupp said. "We will be athletic, but very young. As a staff, we've been pleased with the growth in understanding a new offensive system. The future of Concord volleyball looks very bright.
The Minutemen return seniors Olivia House, Amber Packingham and Sophia Trout, but the roster also features four sophomores and two freshman.
Elkhart Christian coach Kim Moore returns 10 letterwinners as they shoot for a Class A sectional title this season.
Among the returnees for the Eagles are leading hitter Abbey McKibbin, setter Leah Burden and libero Brooke Petty. Moore is also high on the potential of newcomer Hazel Gates as a middle hitter.
"We are all very excited to start out season and look forward to continued grown as a team as we adapt our skills and talents to be intentional and aggressive,'' Moore said. "We hope to capitalize on the experience our letterwinners bring back.''
Brittany Herschberger begins her second year at Fairfield, as the Falcons move to Class 2A this season, getting away from powers NorthWood and West Noble in their sectional.
Senior Madeline Gawthrop should be one of the top all-around players in the area after an outstanding 2018. Gawthrop finished the year with 216 assists, 201 digs, 57 blocks and 216 blocks and 47 aces.
Junior Kayla Miller is back after finishing second to Gawthrop in digs, while Sydney Stutsman looks to be the top setter for the Falcons.
At Goshen, head coach Doug West returns for his second season with junior middle hitter Brynn Shoup-Hill leading the way after a 15-10 record in 2018.