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Meridian’s Chloe Herbert attempts to save the ball against Mount Zion at Meridian High School on Monday night. The teams played a pair of tight matches before Mount Zion emerged a winner. Mount Zion figures to be one of the teams who could be near the top in a jumbled Apollo Conference race. Online gallery at herald-review.com/gallery

Volleyball season is here.

There are some teams that have already played in their first big tournaments and others that are still getting started. Regardless, there's a long way to go and a lot to learn from now to November.

Last season, the H&R area had Shelbyville and Clay City make runs to state and others knocking on the door. Whether the program is contending or rebuilding, there's a lot to look forward to and more to learn.

Here are seven things to get started:

Chance to repeat?

Two area teams made state last year -- Shelbyville and Clay City. And while both would like to make it back to Bloomington, both know how hard it is to make the state finals.

Clay City seems to have the more likely shot -- the Timberwolves return more. Besides the dangerous combination of the Hances, Macy and Megan, Tori Matanich and Paige Spitzner give Clay City four returning starters.

The Rams lost six important seniors, but there's a nucleus back that brings plenty of experience. Sydney Miller brings back 180 kills, and Maddie Holland not only brings a powerful swing as well, her ability to defend at the net flummoxed opposing hitters. Caylee Wheeler is back to help set those two up.

But the most important returner is probably coach Lisa Peifer, who will have to figure out how to retool a team that has several good starting blocks in place.

Apollo for the taking?

With Mount Zion and Effingham looking toward new faces, it seems like this is Mattoon's conference to lose.

The Wave return plenty, including the Thompsons, Sierra and Lexi, Abe Lee and Ashlyn McDonald. It's a lot of firepower. They'll just need someone to set all of them up.

Mount Zion will have plenty of youth to go along with senior hitter Erin Ripple. Ripple has one of the hardest swings in the area, and sophomore Dayna Kennedy should step up to provide a bigger role in the offense as well. But with last year's seniors went much of the serve-receive, and how the Braves answer that question may determine their season.

Effingham finished second behind Mount Zion, but the Hearts lost plenty of starters as well -- four. Effingham does have some senior leadership, two of those helped set up the offense in Sidney Webster and Hannah Pike. How the girls adjust to new roles will help determine if they can take the next step toward capturing a regional championship.

Looking for No. 1

There's plenty of state trophies Teutopolis has collected over the years.

Volleyball's still looking for its first regional.

But the Shoes have been working toward to ending that drought. The last two seasons have been the best in school history, and although a large senior contingent graduated, several young players found plenty of starting time last year.

Between sophomore Savannah Grimes (52 aces, 197 assists), junior Jolene Bueker (90 kills, 101 digs) and Macy Michels (123 kills, 115 blocks), the Shoes have a group that could start for three years. It helps that Teutopolis has plenty of height as well.

Bouncing back

They weren't the prettiest numbers at the end for St. Teresa -- 18-19.

That was the Bulldogs' record after running through their regular season. But it came on a schedule that few small schools in the area can match, and it ended against the eventual state champs, Bloomington Central Catholic. St. T gave BCC the toughest match throughout its whole postseason as the Saints had to win the third set 31-29 in the regional championship game.

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But it cost St. T a streak of seven straight regional titles.

If the Bulldogs want to rebound, they'll need to find a few hitters. Makenna Thornton returns as libero and Lexie Gifford returns the most prolific attack for the Bulldogs, and both provide senior leadership that will be needed for a young team.

If St. Teresa's younger players can grow up quickly and adjust to the demanding schedule, St. T has a shot to start a new streak of regional titles.

Full circle

In Becca Schlechte's freshman year, she helped navigate the waters with older teammates toward the state tournament thanks to stellar play as a setter.

Now in her senior year at Windsor/Stewardson-Strasburg, she has the chance to do the same with younger teammates, including Carson Cole, Mackenzi Tabbert, and Becca's younger sister Megan Schlechte.

Those freshmen had to learn quickly, and that was doubled when Becca went down with an injury.

Replacing Autumn Bennett and Clara Kaufman will be crucial, but having Becca Schlechte organize the offense will help smooth the transition.

Last year, the Hatchets' run ended against Cissna Park, the 1A runner-up. With a little luck on the health front, W/SS could aim for another run at Bloomington.

City rivalry

It's been a one-sided rivalry for a while between MacArthur and Eisenhower, with the Generals holding the upper hand.

But the early-season matchup figures to fuel some fireworks as both teams seem to be on the upswing while returning key players and having stability with the coaches.

Eisenhower has a pair of senior hitters in Maram Abdullah and Lauryn Bond.

The Generals lose not only an stellar hitter, but leader, in Maddie Mann, but do return junior Jakya Pealer for her third year starting as well as Maleeyah Joyner.

MacArthur finished last season at .500, but with a couple of steps could reach that elusive regional title, something that hasn't happened -- ever.

Searching for 30

Maroa-Forsyth has turned at least 30 wins in the past two seasons, something few programs are lucky to reach in a decade.

The Trojans will need to replace Kylie Rudsinski, the nearly unanimous choice for county coaches for player of the year, who was phenomenal on offense and defense.

Maroa, though, always seems to reload.

Still, it won't be easy reaching 30 again. Even though Maroa has height and returners, this is still a fairly young team. Savana Sparks will provide a senior presence -- and that duality that Rudsinski brought by playing both ends of the court well.

And then there's junior Carly Mason, whose numbers as a sophomore are eye-popping -- 339 assists, 233 digs, 123 kills. Can other juniors and sophomores help carry the tradition of strong Trojan volleyball teams?

The other obstacle in reaching 30 is navigating a new conference. The biggest challenger seems to be Williamsville, a team bounced out of the super-sectionals by state champion Bloomington Central Catholic.  

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Sports Writer

Sports Writer for the Herald & Review.

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