After playing 34 matches and earning a third-place finish in the Class AA state tournament a season ago, the 2020 volleyball season will have a different look for the Belle Plaine Tigers.

The Tigers are accustomed to a heavy schedule, with many non-conference matches against AAA schools and grueling week-to-week tests against Minnesota River Conference foes.

This year will look a little different. The Tigers will play only 12 matches, all against Minnesota River Conference opponents.

“We always play a tough schedule,” said Coach Richard Foust, whose team will debut on Thursday, Oct. 8, at Southwest Christian. “Playing tougher competition may mean a few more losses … but it is worth it as the team is battle tested come playoff time.”

Foust said the MRC lost some talented seniors but anticipates the competition will continue to be tough night in and night out.

The Tigers return 11 letter-winners from last year’s team.

Lauren Johnson recorded her 1,000th career dig a season ago and was third on the team in kills while being selected all-conference. Sarah Lenz, also a senior, reached the 1,000 career mark in digs and set assists and was all-conference honorable mention.

Seniors Ari Koepp and Brynne Meyer return as defensive specialists.

Junior Sydney Meyer led the team in digs and Leah Lenz was one of the team’s top blockers.

Lilli Kahle, Abby Fisel, Remi Meyer, and McKenna Ziemke will rotate in the line-up and bring plenty of experience. Each is ready to take on a leadership role, according to Foust.

Sophomores McKenzie Schwichtenberg, a letter-winner last year, and Brianna Swenson will add depth to the team.

Foust indicated that this year’s team will be strong defensively and have a balanced attack but will probably run a more varied offense.

“Last year we had the players that could just take the high ball and slam it down,” Foust said. “We will need to be more creative to take advantage of mismatches.”

Foust said Sarah Lenz will be in her second season running the attack and is getting better at understanding where each of the hitters likes the ball set to them.

“Our back row will be strong and our bench is very good,” Foust said.

How the team improves its blocking will go a long way in determining how deep into the season it plays.

“If we can improve our blocking, we will be a very good team,” according to Foust. “As has been the case in the last four years, we will be shorter than our opponents, as we have only a few 5-10 girls and no six-footers like all of our top opponents will have.”

Foust expects NYA, Mayer Lutheran and Southwest Christian to contend for the MRC crown, with the Tigers in the mix. Southwest Christian, the Tigers’ first opponent, has two strong outside hitters and a 6’1” middle.

Foust has been with the program for 31 years. This will be his 11th as head coach.

“The team and coaching staff are excited to be able to play this fall,” he said. “We are taking significant safety precautions as a team, and hopefully we can stay COVID-free and have some fun this season. We are working on videotaping and planning to livestream many matches, since fans will not be allowed in the gym.”

The Tigers will travel to Arlington to play Sibley East on Saturday, Oct. 10, and welcome Le Sueur-Henderson on Tuesday, Oct. 13, in a rematch of last season’s Section 2AA championship game.

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