It’s rare for a varsity team to have a sophomore captain. The New Life Academy volleyball team has three.
“It’s almost unheard of,” coach Wally Bomgren said.
Kara Stenerson, Abby Thor and Abby Gorter are already in their third year of varsity volleyball. They don’t have their driver’s licenses yet, but they demonstrate the experience, leadership and skill to be named captains of a very young roster.
“They’re very mature kids who understand that there’s responsibility, not just to the team, but to the whole program,” Bomgren said. “They’re great examples every day during practice and also in matches.”
Thor is a 6-foot-2 middle hitter. Gorter is a 5-11 outside hitter. Stenerson is the team’s heart and soul. As the setter, she’s handling the ball all the time and constantly guiding the group on and off the floor.
Together, the trio has helped lead the Eagles to the top tier of the Minnesota Christian Athletic Association. The team also has received votes in the state coaches association’s Class 1A poll.
When the girls were in seventh grade, they played for New Life Academy’s junior high team.
“We could see right then three years ago that they were loving the game, they were listening to coaches and growing and learning,” Bomgren said. “Coaches were not having to repeat things to them very often.”
Youth is the ongoing theme. The Eagles’ starting lineup is comprised of freshmen and sophomores. Not one senior tried out for the squad this season. There is only one junior on the roster, Maddie Stocker, who has come off the bench as an effective libero.
“She’s really come into her own with overall court sense, ball handling and feel around the court. She’s shown real nice improvement this year,” Bomgren said.
These types of situations happen at small schools. New Life Academy, with an enrollment of just 227 in grades 9-12, is experiencing the natural ebbs and flows.
“We have a couple of bubbles where in 10th grade we have a bunch of athletes and our junior and senior classes are very light at this point,” said Bomgren, in his fourth year with the program.
Sophomore outside hitters Sydney Mortensen, Julia Stone and Emma Hawkins help bolster the Eagles. Ninth-grade middle hitter Hannah Nelson is big and strong for her age.
The team is more than capable of making a run in sections, but there will be heavy competition. Conference rival Southwest Christian, with a 13-1 overall record and No. 2 Class 1A ranking before last week, will be tough.
“To keep improving each of the next few years is the No. 1 goal,” Bomgren said. “If the chips fell just right, we certainly have a chance to do well against any team in Class 1A.”
New Life Academy supporters are optimistic about the next three years. The players are very close. Many of them have been going to school at New Life Academy in Woodbury since kindergarten. Some of them have known each other their whole lives.
Youth and experience will be used to their advantage, not as a scapegoat.
“I don’t use their age as an excuse,” Bomgren said. “I talk more in terms of, ‘Here’s what we need to get better at,’ and ‘Here’s the next step we have to take.’ And 95 percent of the time, they’re right with me. They want to improve. They come to work every day. This is not just a social program. We’re out to get after it.”