After 19 years as a head volleyball coach, Tom Lupella made it to the state tournament.
His Pine River-Backus Tigers finished the 2004 season with a 21-7 record. They won both the Pine Lakes and Crosby-Ironton tournaments in the same year for the first time in school history and they won the PR-B tournament.
Eliminating Greenway in the Section 7, Class 2A final highlighted PR-B's season.
Senior outside hitter Erin Cusac is one reason Pine River-Backus is looking for a good season.
In his final season as PR-B head coach, Lupella, who is retiring from teaching, wouldn't mind prolonging his farewell campaign late into November. That would mean another state tournament appearance.
"I guess you just want to enjoy it and have fun and have a good experience," Lupella said about his final season. "You hope to have a good year because it is your last. It's going to be tough to leave it because I have a good group of kids coming up."
Erin Cusac leads the group of four returning starters. The senior outside hitter led the Tigers with 297 kills and 348 digs last year. She added 30 ace serves.
Also back are seniors Kayla Hamilton (middle hitter) and Chelsey Dabill (utility, right-side hitter) and junior Chelsea Christensen (outside hitter).
Pine River-Backus Tigers
Section: 7, Class 2A
2004 record: Mid-State Conf. 3-3, overall 21-7
Head coach: Tom Lupella, 20th year (184-58)
Assistant coaches: Tena Bach, Jackie Kolstad
Returning letterwinners: Seniors -- Kayla Hamilton (middle hitter), Erin Cusac (outside hitter), Chelsey Dabill (utility), Danielle Sonenstahl (outside hitter); Juniors -- Chelsea Christensen (outside hitter), Briana Erickson (setter), Ashley Perkins (outside hitter); Sophomores -- Naomi Anderson (middle hitter), Krystle Hamilton (middle hitter), Laura Laposky (setter)
Additional varsity candidates: Sophomores -- Taylor Sheley (outside hitter), Jamie Ackerman (right-side hitter).
"I've seen a lot of leadership from this group," said Lupella. "They're really working hard with the younger players and being patient with them. I see a real plus there. There's a lot more enthusiasm with this group, too. They're really pushing each other."
Returning letterwinners include senior Danielle Sonenstahl (outside hitter), juniors Brianna Erickson (setter) and Ashley Perkins (outside hitter), sophomores Naomi Anderson (middle hitter), Krystle Hamilton (middle hitter) and Laura Laposky (setter).
"We're trying to get our communication down and trying to play more together," Lupella said. "We have more experience and we seem to have pretty good volleyball skills. We'll be better as the year progresses, but right now the biggest thing is learning how to play together and communicating."
Filling out PR-B's roster are sophomores Taylor Sheley (outside hitter) and Jamie Ackerman (right-side hitter).
Lupella believes his team is ahead of many other teams because of the amount of summer volleyball and Junior Olympic volleyball played.
"We have a good nucleus back," said Lupella. "Right now our strength is that our skills are really good early on. That's what happened last year. We were a little bit ahead of the norm skill wise last year. That's the case again this year."
PR-B joins the Northwoods Conference. Lupella wanted to stay in the more competitive Mid-State Conference, but PR-B pulled all of its sports out of that conference.
The Tigers remain in Section 7 with the likes of Greenway, Deer River and Crosby-Ironton. Lupella, who owns a 184-58 career record, isn't sure which team is the one to beat, which may mean his Tigers is that team.
"Getting back to state led our goals sheet that we fill out before each season," said Lupella. "These girls won't be happy with a mediocre season. I have noticed there is a lot of pressure on these girls. I just keep reminding them to take it one play, one game and one practice at a time and keep improving. They have high expectations, but if we keep improving we'll be fine."
JEREMY MILLSOP can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5856.
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