After big season, Gilman retools with new-look group
In a fall where the Gilman Pirates had a lot of questions heading into the volleyball season, a pandemic was about the worst that could happen.
Instead of heading into their Eastern Cloverbelt Conference opener at Colby tonight, Thursday, having played in several non-conference matches and tournaments, the Pirates had no opportunities to answer those questions and will have to do it on the fly.
They feel like they have the talent needed to produce a strong follow-up to their 2019 co-championship in the conference. But some more time to find exactly where the pieces to the puzzle fit best would’ve been nice.
“It’s brand new,” said head coach Janice Komanec, who enters the most unique of her 13 seasons in that position. “We have three girls returning that had some varsity time. Two that had significant time. Past that, everybody is brand new to varsity. It really is trying to find the way we fit best together, can utilize our strengths and figure where to fit everybody else so we can be as strong as we can be out there.”
After tonight’s match at Colby, Gilman is home on Tuesday to face Columbus Catholic, the team the Pirates shared last fall’s Eastern Cloverbelt title with. The Lady Dons won the head-to-head matchup in the final league match in October. Fan attendance at home matches is currently limited to two tickets per participant.
In all, the Pirates are a bit low on numbers this fall with 13 girls in the program. It’s not the ideal position to be in when players’ availability can change quickly in the COVID world of 2020. But the intriguing thing for the program is there are no seniors on the roster, meaning any matches the team does get can be part of a building process for what will hopefully be a more normal 2021.
Not that anyone’s giving up on this year yet.
“If we can keep everybody healthy and if we improve, we can make a run for top of the conference again,” Komanec said. “But it will be a matter of how much can we improve with just conference play. How much can you improve without those tournaments and those non-conference matches? That’s where you get so many reps in those tournaments. But everybody’s in that boat.”
The Pirates finished 23-8 overall in 2019, bowing out of the WIAA Division 4 tournament with a four-set loss at undefeated Clear Lake, who wound up winning the state title. That match marked Gilman’s first regional final appearance since 2005. The conference title was the school’s first since 1981.
Seven seniors who took up the vast majority of the playing time graduated, leaving Gilman with those unanswered questions to start the year.
The start was in question for awhile due to the pandemic, but practice did finally begin Sept. 7. The team’s most experienced players, juniors Emma Grunseth and Aubrey Syryczuk, said there was no doubt what the players desired when the questions swirled in July and August.
“We just want to play,” Syryczuk said Monday.
“It’s nice to get a chance to play even though we have to wear these things,” Grunseth said, pointing to her mask.
“It was good to have everybody together (last week),” Syryczuk said.
Witih everyone together, Komanec and assistant coach Stephanie Clabots are trying to figure out who best fits where. Those decisions could be team-based more than individuallybased.
“We have to take our strengths and try to capitalize on them but then fill in those open areas with what will best suit our team as a whole,” Komanec said.
For instance, the athletic Syryczuk will still fill the left-side hitting role when she’s in the front row, but she also will log time in the middle of the back row, something she said she’s never done before. Grunseth returns to a middle position in the front row, but she’s also going to get a chance to set as well.
Sophomore Grace Tallier, who got some late-season time a year ago after recovering from an April 2019 knee surgery will step into a much more prominent role as the team’s other left-side hitter and taking the middle spot when she’s in the back. Sophomore Tatum Weir will fill a frontrow middle position opposite of Grunseth. Komanec said junior Tychelle Duellman and sophomore Ellie Drier are battling for time in back row defensive spots. Junior Madisyn James figures to join Grunseth as a key setter. At the start of the week, competition was still on-going for right-side hitting spots. Juniors Ava Gunderson, Hannah Vick and Kya Dietzler are program veterans looking to break into the varsity rotation. The freshman class includes Bryn Hendricks, Jada Rosemeyer and Bailey Angell. The junior veterans and Komanec agree that this could be one of Gilman’s better blocking teams with net presences like Grunseth, Weir, Syryczuk and Tallier. The Pirates did get one chance to play together this summer, entering a tournament in the Wisconsin Dells as a non-school team. They won a couple of matches and learned at least a few things they could bring into the first practice.
“That was the best thing we could’ve ever done because in the first game it was very clear where improvement had to happen and the girls very clearly saw it,” Komanec said. “We went right into a very fast-paced game and it was very eyeopening. It was the best game for us because it opened a lot of eyes to what they need to be prepared for.”
With that in mind, Komanec said footwork was a big focus during the first week of practice as the girls now know how quick they’ll need to be to get to balls, keep plays alive and make solid passes to setters to allow the offense to work.
“We took what we learned at the tournament and we’re going to go with where we think we’re the strongest,” Komanec said. “But we’re also going to be prepared with some changes that have to be tried that first night in case things don’t work out. And as every coach knows right now, you don’t know who you’re going to have day to day.”
One more thing the Pirates feel they have going for them is a solid chemistry even though they haven’t had the preseason time most teams typically have.
“We made a lot of improvements since the first day (of practice),” Syryczuk said of the first week. “We worked better together.”
“As soon as we were able to have open gyms and contacts, they were all here,” Komanec said. “All of them. So it’s encouraging as a coach to see these girls want to be together, play together and learn together. Once (Sept. 7) came, it was OK, now we’ve got direction. We’re just hoping it can all come together, we can improve throughout the season, we can be part of whatever post-season there is, be competitive and most of all, build for next year. We aren’t losing anybody, so we can only go up.”