2021 Hutchinson volleyball team

Members of the 2021 Hutchinson volleyball team are, from left, front row, Keira Young, Cece McGraw, Bryn Ziegler, Jillian Martinez and Ainsley Thode; middle row, Lily Sickman, Gwen Jaunich, Adri Rhoda, Hannah Peterson, Mady Heller and Marissa Stamer; back row, coach Amber Fleck, Brynn Swift, Alyssa Stamer, coach Dennis Piechowski and coach Tim Carroll.

“The sky is the limit,” Hutchinson volleyball head coach Dennis Piechowski said about the 2021 Tigers. But much will depend on whether the Tigers can overcome their own obstacles throughout the season.

One obstacle the Tigers won’t have to worry about is experience. Hutchinson has a strong core of returning varsity players leading the way, including Adri Rhoda, Mady Heller, Brynn Swift, Keira Young, Alyssa Stamer, Bryn Ziegler and Hannah Peterson.

Despite all that experience back, the Tigers still have room for young players to step up and fill in, especially at hitter. Gwen Jaunich and Cecelia McGraw will both get opportunities and have to be ready in case of injury or sickness, and Piechowski said he’ll look to fit defensive specialist Ainsley Thode into the lineup as well.

“Not having many seniors last season, the majority of the players are returning, which is a very good thing for a team and coach to have,” Piechowski said.

While the team’s experience is its strength, Piechowski didn’t skirt around what he sees as the area where the team needs its most improvement — inside their own heads.

“Something that this team will need to improve upon is their competitive spirit and passion to win,” he said. “These players all have the fundamental skills to be a very good team, however, we lack the drive to hold each other accountable and expect more from each other. … Are they willing to pay the price needed to get to the top?”

The Tigers will need that determination and grit, too, if they hope to accomplish their lofty goals this season, beginning with an unprecedented third straight Wright County Conference East title.

Hutchinson was 8-2 last year in the WCC East and tied for the top spot with New Prague, which was 10-2. Making things a little easier is the fact that Orono, Waconia and New Prague — three solid programs — are no longer in the conference. But the Tigers have new rivals including Southwest Christian, which preseason polls has ranked No. 1 in Class AA.

“There are schools in our conference last year who were young with talent,” Piechowski said. “They could easily change outcomes and win games if we aren’t prepared to compete each night. … We play (Southwest Christian) the last match of the season. Hopefully it’s a meaningful game for us on that night.”

When it comes to playoff time, the Tigers are looking forward to a new section format now that volleyball has added a fourth class. That means Hutchinson will no longer be up against larger schools such as Shakopee, Chanhassen and Eden Prairie.

But even against schools closer to its own size, Hutch will have a tough task in Section 2AAA with programs such as Marshall, Willmar, New Ulm, St. Peter, Mankato East and Mankato West. In fact, seven of the eight teams in Hutchinson’s new section had winning records and were a combined 62-14 during last fall’s shortened season. The Tigers were 10-3 overall.

“Should be a very good section that will be very well represented at the state tourney,” Piechowski said. “Our goal — to get an opportunity to play in the section championship game. One match on a neutral court, that’s all we can ask for.”

To accomplish those goals, the Tigers have to improve each day, during practices and games. Piechowski said the team doesn’t have to be playing its best volleyball until the end of the season, but it must learn what is needed to be competitive each day.

“It takes more than just fundamentals to reach the top,” Piechowski said. “We will need to improve on the intangibles in order to reach the goals we have set.”