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Volleyball: New coach, new hope for Wingers

Red Wing brings back plenty of experience from 2013. Now, the Wingers need to experience the thrill of victory.

After going 5-48 over the last two years, Red Wing is under new leadership in head coach Jackie Braithwaite. And after going 1-25 last fall, the Wingers are hungry to find some success.

“It’s good that we had a young team last year because this year, everyone has that varsity experience,” senior outside hitter Taylor Quandt said. “We’re going to be ready to go out this season.”

Senior libero Maria Furlong added, “We’ve all worked with each other the past few seasons now, and we’re all ready to go out and win some games.”

With Braithwaite taking over for Heidi Ulwelling, the Wingers are getting lessons from a coach that was firmly entrenched in one of Class 1A’s top teams. 

For seven seasons, Braithwaite was the assistant coach at Minneota High School, her alma matter. As a coach, she helped the Vikings reach state five times, and she also reached state twice during her high-school playing career. Braithwaite also found success at the collegiate level, winning a junior college national title at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minnesota, as a freshman. Ridgewater finished as the national runner-up in her sophomore year. 

Now, Braithwaite is trying to find her way as a head coach and has focused on getting to know her players over the first two weeks of practice.

“So far, it’s been just a lot of me getting to know them and them getting to know me,” Braithwaite said. “Just kind of figuring out who everybody is and where they play, just really trying to work on the basics.”

The biggest emphasis over the first two weeks was on ball control.

“Passing and serving, that’s a big thing we had in Minneota, and that’s something I believe should be in everyone’s volleyball program,” Braithwaite said. “If you can’t do either of those, you’re going to struggle with everything else.”

“We also condition a lot too so we can be able to stay strong during the games,” Furlong said. “The practices so far have been very fun.”

If Red Wing can get the ball to the net, they bring back a pair of strong middle hitters in juniors Sydney Book and Taylor Steger. Book, a second-team All-Area selection finished with 155 kills, 139 digs, 27 blocks, 18 ace serves and 44 set assists, and Steger tallied 73 kills, 36 blocks, 118 digs and 18 set assists.

The Wingers also return outside hitters Quandt and Sara Kelly, while Maddie Sonju and Olivia Brown will see time at outside hitter and on the right side. Sarah O’Keefe and McKenzie Cota will share time at setter in Red Wing’s 6-2 offense.

“I told them that by no means is our lineup going to stay the same from what we start with,” Braithwaite said. “A few of them can kind of play anywhere, which is nice if we need to switch things up or move people around. We have the opportunity to do that.”

Both players and coaches don’t have illusions about the 2014 season: there will be some struggles trying to win with nine varsity players while adjusting to the Big Nine Conference.

“It might help that we have a new conference and we’ll see new competition,” Quandt said. “Having a new coach is good, too, because you get different coaching perspectives, so you have multiple perspectives to go off of. These last couple weeks of practice have been pushing us to go harder and that’s been really good.”

The rookie head coach wants to see progress throughout the season.

“It’s all changes. It’ll be learning for everyone,” Braithwaite said. “I want them to have fun and enjoy the season, but I want them to be competitive. That’s my goal for them. … They all seem hungry to want to go out and win, too. It’s been good to hear them say stuff about winning.”

Joe Brown

Joe Brown is the sports editor for the Red Wing Republican Eagle. Previously, he worked at the Marshall Independent and the St. Cloud Times. For updates on local sports, follow Joe on Twitter at @RE_JBrown.

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