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MAC volleyball program has tough act to follow

PARK HILLS – Mineral Area has gradually climbed to the upper echelon of NJCAA Division I volleyball during a steady 14-year process under head coach Tim Copeland.

After going unbeaten during the 2017 regular season and achieving a sixth-place national finish – the highest for any athletic program in school history – the Lady Cardinals are being noticed.

They enter a new season ranked No. 8 in the NJCAA poll, a number that may be somewhat skewed by the success of last year’s remarkable run.

The program’s first three all-American honorees have graduated and moved on; first team setter Pam Zuluaga to Arkansas Little-Rock, Cailey Bracken to Delaware and Jane Kickham to Central Methodist.

Now that Mineral Area can boast back-to-back national tournament appearances, the obvious challenge at hand is to protect the ground it has recently gained.

The Lady Cards have six returning players on a sizable total roster of 15, and four of them were part of the regular rotation in crucial matches as freshmen.

Fredericktown graduate Raylyn Dodd patrolled the middle of the net, and provided perhaps the most exciting match point in a 36-2 season when her partial block and immediate kill capped an exhausting five-set thriller in Kansas against second-ranked Iowa Western.

Libero Shelby Meyer ranked seventh nationally at 5.33 digs per set, and former Farmington star Ainslee Finch provided pivotal help as a defensive specialist.

Melissa Avendano is the top returning attacker, and is among a growing influence of international talent on the team that includes athletes from Columbia, Brazil, Peru and Serbia.

West County graduate Megan Blair and fellow outside hitter Isidora Stojovic are back for their respective sophomore seasons as well.

Mineral Area is poised to have arguably its most outstanding back row to date with the addition of two more local standouts.

Sydni Basler helped Valle Catholic land consecutive state final four berths at libero, and Emily Greif of Farmington can steal points with her tricky floating serves.

The most glaring voids to fill entering the 2018 campaign are the crisp ball distribution of Zuluaga and all-around power and skill of Bracken and Kickham.

Freshman Laura Danezzi and sophomore transfer Maria Cristina Castillo Grey are listed as incoming setters. Avendano moves to a middle spot where Cindy Garcia Penaloza also competes.

Macy Ketcherside has the ability at 6 feet tall to play anywhere on the court. Katie Duncan give the Lady Cardinals another hitter from nearby Jefferson County.

Other new roster members for MAC include Baylie Petry and Solymar Santos Roig. Penaloza and Stojovic are the tallest players on the squad at 6-foot-2.

The schedule features five separate tournaments, but no longer one at Sechrest Fieldhouse. Events at Iowa Western and Hutchinson are especially beneficial for exposure and quality competition.

Mineral Area will play 14 of its first 16 matches away from home, including the Region 16 opener at Jefferson on Sept. 12.

Highlighting the list of seven regular season home dates are clashes with Indian Hills on Oct. 6 and the annual Midnight Madness game against MSU-West Plains on Oct. 17.

The Lady Cardinals will host the Region 16 tournament this year, along with a potential district playoff.

Mineral Area libero Shelby Meyer returns for her sophomore season after ranking seventh nationally in digs per set in 2017.

Mineral Area libero Shelby Meyer returns for her sophomore season after ranking seventh nationally in digs per set in 2017.

Mineral Area middle blocker Raylyn Dodd (12) spikes a kill during a Region 16 match against Jefferson last season.

Mineral Area middle blocker Raylyn Dodd (12) spikes a kill during a Region 16 match against Jefferson last season.

Ainslee Finch returns this season for a Mineral Area volleyball team that should benefit tremendously from its back row defense.

Ainslee Finch returns this season for a Mineral Area volleyball team that should benefit tremendously from its back row defense.

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