Anna Pioske, a senior outside hitter for Waconia, set a school record last season with 65 blocks. “She’s just one of those players you have to see,” coach Jim Lee said. Photo by Elizabeth Flores • email@example.com
It's been the same for the past six years. Every game, every practice, every summer workout session -- they all start with Anna Pioske and Caroline Jacobs playing pepper, popping the ball back and forth to warm up.
It began in seventh grade, and as the two became varsity regulars as sophomores three seasons ago, it never changed.
Pioske, the imposing force at the net, and Jacobs, the anchor of the team's transition game from the libero position, have been such a familiar tandem on the court for the Waconia volleyball team that coach Jim Lee can't picture the team without them.
"It's going to be so strange next year when those two are not in our program," he said of his star seniors. "Having them here for three years, it's been essential for our program."
And they'll be an essential part for the Wildcats this fall, as a young Waconia squad will try to improve off a 21-10 season in 2011 that featured a second-round loss to Shakopee in the Section 2, Class 3A playoffs.
With only three seniors this fall -- Pioske, Jacobs and outside hitter Steph Dressen -- the Wildcats won't be much older, but that doesn't mean they lack experience.
"We're young," Pioske said, "but we play a tough schedule, and it pushes us to get better. And the more hard teams we play, the better we get and the more experience we get."
The Wildcats will play some of the state's top teams in every class, including the likes of Eden Prairie, Lakeville North and the team's full slate of Wright County Conference opponents.
Lee doesn't prefer to set season-long goals, but there are lofty expectations for a team that is only two years removed from the Class 3A state semifinals. A trip back to the Xcel Energy Center for another state tournament isn't hard to imagine.
Everything will hinge on the Wildcats' ability to serve consistently and have strong ball control, Lee said, and that's where Pioske and Jacobs come in.
As a junior, Jacobs led the team with 473 digs, and Lee says he'd put her up against any libero they'll face this season.
Pioske set the school's single-season blocks record in 2011 with 65. She also led the team in kills (459) and had 270 digs. The 5-11 outside hitter was named to the all-state team and made third-team all-metro. She committed to play next year at the University of North Dakota.
"She's just one of those players you have to see," Lee said. "She's great at the net, and we expect her to just get even better as the season goes on."
The Wildcats will have to rely on a host of juniors, many who were wide-eyed sophomores a year ago. Lee sees Kirsten Wagner and Sam Paulson stepping into large roles, as well as sophomore Jessica Wolf.
The team is close off the court, and Wagner said that helps it play more cohesively on it.
Pioske and Jacobs feel they have almost a sixth sense playing with each other.
"We just seem to always know where the other's going to be and what balls they're getting to," Pioske said.
Those countless hours playing pepper have paid off, and while they seem to know exactly how everything will start this year -- at least, in warmups -- the two seniors hope they have a good idea of how it will end, too.
"I think anybody would want to envision a trip to the Xcel," Jacobs said. "That's for every team; that's what everyone wants to do. But more than anything, I want us to go out and play our best and be happy how we finish. That's all we can hope for, and hopefully that's enough."