Here are the top 10 teams in The Times' coverage area entering the 2021 season.
The Mustangs are looking to run it back after making it to the Class 4A state title game last season. While graduation wiped out a good amount of firepower, Munster will still be led by Times Player of the Year Haley Melby. The Iowa recruit had 356 kills last year and is poised to have a big season. Sarah Morton (Auburn) is one of the best liberos in the area and junior Lauren Wallace could benefit the most from increased opportunities at the net.
2. Crown Point
If the Mustangs are going to make it back to the state finals, they'll have to get through Crown Point and that won't be an easy task. The Bulldogs are loaded yet again with a strong senior class. Outside hitter Kendall Schara (Green Bay) and setter Rachel Rossman (Oakland) will spend their college years battling each other in the Horizon League while middle hitter Lilly Stoddard will play basketball at Purdue.
The 59ers bring back their entire roster from a strong 2020 campaign, including senior outside hitter Angelina Majchrowicz and setter Madi Kmetz. The diamond in the rough might be sophomore Marin Sanchez, who was thrown into the fire last year and finished second on the team with 154 kills. Andrean coach Grant Bell is no stranger to postseason success, having won the Class 2A state title in 2017.
Losing Paige Conklin (334 kills) to graduation would cripple most teams, but the Slicers aren't most teams. Second-year coach Jessica Dhoore Ramirez has an impressive array of talent back this season, including Ball State recruit Aniya Kennedy. The senior had 268 kills last season before missing the postseason due to COVID-19 protocols. Kennedy is moving from the middle to the outside this season and she'll be a force in the Duneland Athletic Conference. Senior libero Lesley Marshall is back after serving as a captain last season.
5. Lake Central
The Indians suffered a brutal end to the 2020 season as COVID-19 contact tracing wiped out the bulk of the varsity roster in the postseason. That forced a young group of freshmen to get valuable sectional experience that could pay off down the road. Senior Caroline Krueger will lead a team looking to erase the bitter feeling of last season's finish.
There's little question that the Trojans can hit the ball with force. The bigger question is who is going to get the hitters the ball. Setter Maggie Vrahoretis was lost to graduation after last season and senior captain Celia Farroh looks poised to step into the position. Farroh will have plenty of options, including Meghan Gaffigan and Emma Ekblaw. Don't be surprised if the Trojans make a breakthrough to the top third of the DAC standings this season.
How far can one superstar take a team? It's not that Kennedy Wagner is the only talented player on Valparaiso's roster, she's just the only returning player with substantial varsity experience. Wagner, who is being heavily recruited by some of the biggest programs in the country, led the Vikings with 374 kills, 49 aces and 361 digs last year. Longtime coach Katie Lenard is going with a smaller roster this season and look out for freshman setter Kyla Coolman to make an impact as she gains more experience.
8. Kankakee Valley
Lexi Broyles has been one of the best hitters in Northwest Indiana dating back to her freshman year and the senior is now ready to close out her career in strong fashion. The Kougars have a bitter taste in their mouth after they took a 2-0 lead against Culver Academies in the sectional final, only to fall in five sets. Broyles is one of the most respected players in the Region and if she's on the floor, Kankakee Valley will be in every match.
Could this be the year that Highland's senior class finally turns the corner? Sophia Johnston, Carly Raab and Jelly Castillo have been varsity contributors since they were freshmen, but they've yet to finish above .500. Johnston helped lead her travel team to a national title earlier this summer and Raab has been a model of consistency throughout her career. Look for the Trojans to break through this year.
10. Illiana Christian
The Vikings finally got a crack at the postseason last year, only to run smack into Andrean after knocking off Lake Station in the sectional semifinals. Senior outside hitter Mia Doorn is back after leading Illiana Christian with 327 kills last season. Sophomore Avery Martin earned a lot of key experience as a freshman last season and she is poised to take another step forward this year.
Players to watch
Lexi Broyles, Sr., OH, Kankakee Valley; Angelina Majchrowicz, Sr., OH, Andrean; Sophia Johnston, Sr., OH Highland; Aniya Kennedy, Sr., OH/MH, LaPorte; Caroline Krueger, Sr., OH, Lake Central; Haley Melby, Sr., OH; Sarah Morton, Sr., L, Munster; Rachel Rossman, Sr., S, Crown Point; Kendall Schara, Sr., OH, Crown Point; Kennedy Wagner, Jr., Valparaiso.
Gallery: The Times' best prep sports photos of the 2020-21 school year
Our favorite photos from a photogenic prep sports season.
Our favorite photos from a photogenic winter prep sports season in the Region.