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Depth, experience make up for loss of standout middle blocker
Ripon Christian girls volleyball
Avery McMurray (10) spikes it through the block against Southern Athletic League foe Le Grand. GARY JENSEN/

Ripon Christian may no longer have 6-foot-3 middle blocker Emily Van Groningen, but it’s a deeper team with more experience overall heading into its second season under coach Kayla Kootstra.

Expectations have not changed for the reigning Sac-Joaquin Section Division V champion, which returns three All-Southern Athletic League players, brings up talent from the 21-3 junior varsity team and welcomes a senior transfer who helps fill a need at setter. The Knights are coming off a 36-6 season in which they collected their 17th Section title.

“We can’t replace Emily,” Kootstra said of the two-time All-SAL Co-MVP who is now at Pacific. “Obviously we miss her, but I think we’re returning a pretty solid core that has another year under their belts. Most of the girls played club this offseason, and we’re seeing the fruits of their added contact with the ball.

“They’re more comfortable working with the system and working together. While we will miss Emily’s presence, I think we have a solid, well-rounded attack. We have some options coming out of different parts of the court. If we can put it all together, I think we should do well this season.”

Among the top returners are senior outside hitter Avery McMurray (182 kills), senior opposite Ava Van Groningen (209 kills, 41 blocks, 244 digs, 93 aces) and junior outside hitter Jordan Vander Veen (202 kills). They’re the returning all-league selections and are at full strength.

Last year, McMurray was slowed by a torn meniscus that she had repaired in the offseason, while Vander Veen missed the final month of the season with a hairline fracture in a tibia.

Middle blocker Taylor Postma (65 kills, 41 blocks) is another leading upperclassman and one of three captains.

“They definitely are great representatives of our team and our program,” Kootstra said. “We have a solid group of leaders in the entire senior class and I’m excited to see them step into those roles as the season continues to develop.”

Ripon Christian’s 14-team roster consists of seven seniors and seven juniors.

Megan Weststeyn and Eva Benedict are the new setters, but only one will be eligible to start the season. Weststeyn, a 6-foot junior coming up from the JV ranks, gets the nod out the gate as Benedict, a senior, serves the sit-out period after transferring from Gregori of Modesto.

Middle blocker Sydney Hoffman is another JV product expected to contribute immediately. Senior Ellie Dyt and junior Lean Van Wyn Garden will compete for time at libero.

Ripon Christian has another challenging non-league schedule that features several of the top teams from the region, such as St. Mary’s (at home, Aug. 25), Escalon (home, Aug. 30), Manteca (away, Aug. 31) and Central Catholic (away, Sept. 1).

The Knights have an interesting addition in Central Valley Christian of Visalia. They’ll host the Central Section Division I semifinalist for their season opener Friday before the football teams from both schools square off at RC.

Although there isn’t a deep history between the two schools athletically, they are tied in several ways. Kootstra describes Central Valley as a “sister school” because of the connections between the administrations and families.

“I’ve been in contact with their coach last season about doing a tournament down there, but it didn’t work out,” Kootstra said. “When this opportunity came up, we decided to give it a whirl. We’re hoping for a fun night. It’s a big event with football and volleyball together.

“I’m looking forward to seeing what we can do. I don’t know a ton about their team because I’ve been focusing on ours the past three weeks. There will be improvements we’ll have to make if we want to get to where want to get at the end of the season, and playing CVC gives us an opportunity to see where we’re at and what we have to work on.”