CHASSELL - The Chassell volleyball team returned just three players from last year's squad, and has had the entire team together for a practice this preseason exactly once.
Coach Gael Filpus knew the first match of the year would not be pretty.
Still, despite those hindrances, the Panthers came together in fine fashion Tuesday night for a 3-1 (25-23, 23-25, 25-21, 25-22) victory over Hancock.
Chassell junior Annie Ruohonen puts away a kill in the second set against Hancock Tuesday. The Panther middle hitter played a dynamic game, leading the team in blocks and aces, while chipping in four kills as her team won 3-1. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
"We had kids on vacation, kids with jobs, so yesterday (Monday) was the first day we had the entire team at a practice," Filpus said. "So I was pretty happy with how things went. To be honest I think Hancock was the more skilled team, but we came out with tenacity and aggressiveness and that really helped separate us."
In other words, a typical early-season match.
"For both teams, there were just a lot of unforced errors," Hancock coach Kristan Schuster said. "Both sides got some offense rolling, but not as much they probably would have liked to. We only have one starter from last year returning (Katelyn Anderson), so I do expect a lot of unforced errors right now."
Much of Chassell's success in the first set came from simply keeping the ball off their ground and waiting for Hancock to make a mistake. The Panthers recorded just five kills, but a consistent defense kept the pressure on the Bulldogs, who faded at the end of the set.
After Hancock took back the tightly contested second set, Chassell was able to pull away in the third with eight straight points to overcome an early 6-point deficit.
All eight points in the rally were won from a Hancock passing or hitting mistake.
"This group of girls never really gets down," Filpus said. "So they can keep being positive and aggressive and a few runs against us won't bother them too much."
When the Panthers did find their offensive groove, they tended to go through middle hitter Annie Ruohonen.
The athletic junior recorded the only blocks of the match for Chassell (three) and led the team with three aces in the decisive fourth-set six-point run.
Along with outside hitter Kaitlyn Hietala - who led the Panthers with seven kills - Filpus expects the offense to funnel through that duo.
"If I can get her to jump more and snap her wrist all the way, that ball will hit the 10-foot line easily," Filpus said. "She is working on it right now, and she is still young. But she has that natural power."
For Hancock, there will be plenty of positives to take away if the passing mistakes can be cleaned up.
Both Katelyn Anderson and Taylor Matson had a strong jump serve working - with the team recording 12 aces - and every starter recorded at least one kill.
In future matches, Schuster believes this will be the path to success - without the unforced errors to accompany it.
"Honestly, I think that I have five strong hitters out there," Schuster said. "And I would like to be super unpredictable and be able to use all five hitters. We are going to be strong down the road if we use them all."