Belle Plaine head coach Cassie Koch directs her team after the first game of the match against New Prague Tuesday, October 1 at Belle Plain High School. ] (SPECIAL TO THE STAR TRIBUNE/BRE McGEE) **Cassie Koch (head coach)
Belle Plaine volleyball coach Cassie (Wolpern) Koch’s high expectations as a player haven’t changed.
“Cassie cares so much about the Belle Plaine volleyball program and is a fierce competitor,” Tigers senior outside hitter Marykay Nasby said. “She is still a super player, too. When Cassie practices with us, she still kicks our butt.”
Of course, it’s all done with a purpose. Koch, who set a national record for career kills as a player at Belle Plaine, wants to bring out the best in her players on a daily basis. She has seen the Tigers’ record improve every year since taking over the program four years ago. They went 18-11 in 2010, 22-8 in 2011 and 26-9 in 2012.
A year ago, Belle Plaine reached its first state tournament under Koch. The Tigers finished fourth in Class 2A, losing to eventual state champion Marshall in the semifinals.
“We have the same goal this year, to reach the state tournament,” Koch said. Her starting lineup needed a little tweaking from the state tournament squad. The Tigers lost four starters, including two three-year starters.
“We lost some offensive strength and varsity experience to graduation,” Koch said. “We spent the preseason moving players around to positions where they would succeed and be most beneficial for us.”
She had a good foundation to build from in Nasby, seniors setter Devin Lehman, middle blocker Amara Meyer and freshman outside hitter Mariena Hayden. Meyer, Nasby and Hayden started in all three state tournament matches a year ago.
“I credit our defense for closing the gap of what we lost in offense to graduation,” Koch said. “I also commend our returning starters for holding expectations high, keeping the same goals and influencing the same environment that helped us get to the state tournament last year.”
Koch has mixed four newcomers into the lineup at various times. They are senior outside hitter Emily Vinkemeier and sophomore middle blocker Kaylee Hentges, and two freshmen — libero Elizabeth Johnson and defensive specialist Danielle Taylor.
“We have a squad of 12 who are all capable of contributing each night, making practices competitive and valuable,” Koch said.
The Tigers, ranked fourth, have a 17-4 record entering the final two weeks of the regular season.
Not all of those victories have come easy, with the Tigers at times playing down to the level of their competition.
“Throughout the first half of the season we struggled with consistency,” Koch said. “The roller coaster was evident nightly. Fortunately, we found our strength in closing out close games to end up with a ‘W’ in most matches.”
Koch isn’t one to shy away from pushing her players to another level.
“She gives us a lot of tough,” Nasby said. “She isn’t going to sugarcoat anything. I love it that way.”
It’s all done to get the Tigers to their ultimate goal.
“We recognize the amount of talent in our gym, and have continued working hard to get each player performing at a high level night in and night out,” Koch said. “This team should have a fair shot at another state tourney appearance, as they deserve.”