The Gretna volleyball team lost six seniors, including four starters, from the team that made it to last year's Class B state final.
But the Dragons, 26-9 last season, still have some firepower returning.
Top scorers Natalie Mickelson and Halie McArdle are back. The two outside hitters averaged nearly nine kills a match.
“That makes a big difference,” coach Mike Brandon said.
Mickelson, a senior, has already committed to the University of Nebraska at Omaha. McArdle, a sophomore, has just started the recruiting process.
Those two along with returning middle hitter Sara Rahmanzai could keep Gretna in what Brandon called a wide-open race for this year's crown.
The list of contenders is long, with lots of talent spread across the board. Brandon said defending champion Grand Island Northwest, Lincoln Pius X, Norris, Waverly, Elkhorn South, Omaha Skutt, Elkhorn, Omaha Gross and Aurora all could be in the mix.
“That's a pretty good group of teams right there,” Brandon said. “Normally, it's not that open that any one of 10 teams could win it. I guess that makes it exciting.”
Brandon hopes that seeing what it takes to make it to the finals has rubbed off on the younger players who will need to step up this year. Gone is all-state setter Chandelle Davidson, along with Rian Kirby, Madi Sutton, Paige Young, Elise Gahan and Zoe Otteman.
This year's team won't be as tall, with no players over 6 feet, so passing, serving and limiting errors will be critical. But just as important for the Dragons is believing that they'll make the tournament.
“We had really good chemistry last year and the girls believed it was possible, they believed we were going to go to the state championship,” he said. “The new girls have to embrace that idea that we could go. Why not us?”
The returning starters as well as seniors Lexi Schwartz, Jessica Becker and Mackenzie Oliver have pushed the girls at camps over the summer.
“They have been great,” Brandon said. “They've been really demanding of the girls and leading by example and showing what kind of effort it takes.”
With so many open spots in the starting lineup, Brandon is expecting some intense practices. But he thinks it's good for the team that everyone has a shot at playing.
Serving, passing and defense were the focuses at Monday's first drill, and will be until the Dragons open Sept. 5 at Nebraska City.
Gretna came close to a title last year, losing 25-22, 29-31, 25-20, 11-25, 16-14 in the championship. It was the first time the program had advanced that far, and Brandon said that step will help cement that the team belongs there.
Until last year, the Dragons had never won at state. They've qualified the past four years.
“It's something they've talked about all summer,” he said. “Definitely, they kind of feel like we have unfinished business.”