By Chris Parker
Having to replace two all-state players would be cause for alarm for many volleyball programs. Not all volleyball programs are the Kickapoo Lady Chiefs.
Leah Vokolek and Harper Auman were stars for Kickapoo in their senior season. Vokolek led the team in digs (342) and serve-receives (361) while Auman orchestrated the Kickapoo attack with 745 assists.
“Leah was a tremendous defensive player and really set the tone. We will work hard to keep that defensive effort at a high level. Harper ran the offense and was really good at being creative in tough situations. Both of these players left their mark on Kickapoo volleyball,” sixth-year head coach Marci Johnson.
The good news is that a stable of strong players return for Johnson led by returning all-state selection Tayte Kozlowski. Kozlowski led Kickapoo in kills with 255 while contributing 169 digs.
“Tayte has a very competitive mindset and wants to work hard for her team. She is impactful as a hitter because she is so aggressive and athletic,” Johnson said. “As Tayte gets older she is constantly getting smarter and more crafty as a hitter. We’ll expect her to be a go-to hitter and be reliable in all situations.”
Kickapoo will have plenty of options behind Kozlowski with the next four leaders in kills returning. Bailey Schuldt (177 kills), Kennedy Aurentz (148 kills), Azyah Green (145 kills) and Lauren Forbes (117) kills all return. The first three are seniors this year while Forbes enters her sophomore season.
“Bailey Schuldt and Azyah Green will both be seniors and have both played middle for us in the past. We are looking for them to be a big offensive threat and a big defensive presence with their block. They both work extremely hard to connect with our setters and should be very impactful players,” Johnson said. “Kennedy Aurentz returns as an impactful outside hitter. She’s coming off another all-state stent in the shot put and that competitive nature really feeds her drive on the volleyball court. She’s a strong and smart attacker. Lauren Forbes was an outside hitter for us as a freshman. Lauren is a very versatile player. She can set, hit and play defense and do it all at a high level. She’s a very patient player with a calm, but very impactful presence on the floor.”
The versatility that hitting group provides will be a great asset for Kickapoo this season.
“Having that many talented attackers is really going to put pressure on our defense to keep the ball off the floor and setters to better the ball. The more we can do that the more we can allow our attackers to do their jobs,” Johnson said. “All of those hitters have shown impressive growth over the offseason and they took no time to gel as we all got back together for summer play.”
Johnson won’t look for just one player to replace Auman’s production as they will likely run a 6-2 this year with many options at setter. Catie Rankin and Kyra Burcham will be key players in the defensive game.
“Catie Rankin returns as a big part of our defense. She’s really been working on her serve-receive in the offseason and has tremendous pursuit for the ball. She’s reliable in the back row and will provide our offense with a lot of opportunities because she works so hard to keep the ball off the floor,” Johnson said. “Kyra Burcham also returns as a defensive player for us. She has become more and more reliable on the back row and works hard to be in the right position. She’s got a great defensive mentality and knows her role is important for our team’s success.”
Caitlyn Bernhard (hitter/setter), Josie Barrand (defensive specialist) and Katelyn Clark (outside hitter) are a few other names that will impact the Kickapoo varsity.
Kickapoo went 28-7 last year. The Lady Chiefs ended the season with a three-set loss to Ozark in the district championship game. This group will be chasing conference and district titles this season with hopes of a deep postseason run.
“This group of girls wants nothing more than to win. They have a combined mindset and drive to be the best they can be,” Johnson said. “They know it will take every person doing their job and they have to rely on each other to be their best at all times. They are prepared to do what it takes to hold each other accountable and make the most of every game.”
Kickapoo opens the season on Aug. 28 at home against Rogersville.