HOUGHTON - In high school sports, every new season brings new challenges.
But the 2013 Houghton volleyball team may be facing a test that is unique in school history.
With enrollment slightly up at Houghton High but slightly down across the state, the Gremlins find themselves in Class B for the first time since at least 1951 - and possibly ever.
Houghton’s Jada Riutta serves during a drill at practice Wednesday. The Gremlins begin their 2013 volleyball season Saturday at the Sault Invitational. (DMG photo by Michael Bleach)
As the sixth-smallest school in Michigan with a Class B designation, this is no small change for a school that has won two of the last three district titles in Class C, where the Gremlins and Calumet find themselves at the top of the class for U.P. volleyball.
"First of all, we try to focus on what we have control over, and we don't have control over this," head coach John Christianson, who is currently researching the last time Houghton competed in Class B, said. "But what we can control, is how hard we work, and what we do to prepare for that.
"As a part of that, I have made some modifications to our schedule," Christianson added. "Next week we are going to a two-day, 18-team tournament in Oshkosh (Wis.). We will be playing schools ranging from 2,000 in their enrollment to schools our size. It gives us an opportunity to play schools of a higher class like we will when it is time for districts, when we will play Kingsford, Escanaba, Gladstone and Menominee. We have to get ourselves ready for that because we are going to run in to a higher level of play."
The change comes at a time of transition for a team that lost six key seniors from last year's squad and is moving from a 5-1 (one setter) formation to a 4-2 (two setters).
Where the offense had run through the graduated Natalie Datto's hands last season, the Gremlins will be experimenting with a pair of setters in seniors Lexi Pyykkonen and Kenna Farrey for the 2013 schedule.
It will take an adjustment for both the hitters and service receive, but Christianson is confident the increased versatility will make the payoff worth it.
"We are going to try and play to the strength of our players," Christianson said. "We have two setters who are about equal in their ball-handling ability, so we are going to look at running one of them across the front row and one across the back row.
"It allows us to use their strengths. Lexi (Pyykkonen) is very, very quick and Kenna is big and strong."
For Pyykkonen and Farrey's part, Christianson is hoping the duo can reach a point where they set a similar ball to help build continuity and timing with the hitters.
"It is just getting them to be consistent to where they put the ball," Christianson said. "When you have one setter, generally they handle all the balls so the hitters get used to having the same ball every time. Our job right now is to get those two to set the same ball every time. That is the big part we have to work on."
Like last season, the Gremlins' attack will be strong up the middle with the aggressive Elisa Jurmu manning one rotation and junior Sydney Dillinger shifting from the outside to middle block to replace Northern Michigan recruit Blaire Zenner.
The pair ensure that the Gremlins have a powerful outlet whenever Houghton can spring its fast-paced attack.
"She is such a good athlete that she has taken to it naturally," Christianson said of Dillinger. "She has the length, has the height and has the blocking timing."
Outside, seniors Annika Wheeler and Ashlyn Kero and returning junior Emma Huhta look to be the biggest Gremlin threats with Jada Riutta having locked down the right-side hitting position she manned last season.
Like the setters, each brings something different to the table, presenting Christianson with the challenge of finding an effective rotation for a versatile, but relatively inexperienced squad.
"We graduated six kids who all played integral roles last year," Christianson said. "So it is an opportunity for kids to step up, and so far they are.
"Jada Riutta is definitely set on the right side for us," Christianson added. "She did a really good job for us blocking. She is a natural lefty and that's so nice to have that out there."