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Firebirds dig their volleyball success

kyleigh toso devils lake 2017

DEVILS LAKE—Getting defensive has helped turned around the fortunes of the Devils Lake volleyball program.

The Firebirds will make their first appearance since 2009 in the North Dakota Class A state high school tournament when they play Bismarck Century at 5 p.m. Thursday in the state quarterfinals at the Fargodome.

Since Carla Freschette's initial season as head coach in 2015, the program has shown significant improvement in all categories—kills, assists, blocks, service aces. But the biggest difference is in the back-row defense.

Freschette's first team totaled 557 digs. This season, that total is up to 1,438.

"That comparison shows a lot,'' Freschette said. "You can't do anything without the dig and the pass. That's where it all starts.

"It's an area that we struggled in my first year. It's something that has been building. I think (defense) is one of the things that has kept us in matches. It's put us in a position to win. We've dug some good balls and followed those up with big swings.''

Sophomore libero Abby Johnson alone has 398 digs. Add her total to that of any of four of her teammates—Chiara Olson (267 digs), Mattea Vetsch (232 digs), Taylor Windjue (198 digs) or Alex Palmer (162 digs)—and that would surpass the entire number of digs by the 2015 team.

"Abby Johnson has definitely earned the libero's job,'' Freschette said. "She does a phenomenal job in the back row. Taylor, Alex, Chiarra, Mattea—they all play well in the back row.

"Hitters always get the glory. But it starts with a dig and a pass. That's what we as coaches harp on the kids.''

Junior Kyleigh Toso, who leads the Firebirds with 218 kills—Vetsch and Olson, each with 184, are tied for second—was a reserve on the 2015 team. Toso has seen a big difference in the defensive play.

"We have a really quick back row,'' Toso, an all-conference pick this season, said. "They move well. We're pretty athletic. And I think we're pretty aggressive.

"We do a lot of defensive drills. We start every practice working on defense and passing.''

The Firebirds had sub-.500 records in each of Freschette's first two seasons as coach. But, with Toso, Palmer, Windjue and Olivia Light all returning starters, the DL coach anticipated a competitive team. Devils Lake takes a 21-14 record to state.

"We've gotten better each year,'' Freschette said.

"I don't think there's one particular thing that stands out with this team. There have been situations where our defense has kept us in matches. We've had matches we've won where everybody has had big swings. It's been everybody contributing.''

Devils Lake at a glance

Coach: Carla Freschette.

Record: 21-14.

State tournament opener. The Firebirds, the No. 4 seed from the East Region, play Bismarck Century (31-8, West Region No. 1 seed) at 5 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Class A state tournament at the Fargodome.

Firebirds' regular rotation (kills-blocks-service aces-digs): Sr. Alex Palmer 89-8-48-162 (465 assists), jr. S/RH Taylor Windjue 136-21-35-198 (509 assists), jr. RH Alice Benedetti 101-8-11-28, sr. MH Olivia Light 114-31-34-29, jr. MH Kyleigh Toso 218-86-34-74, jr. OH Chiara Olson 184-13-29-267, jr. OH Mattea Vetsch 184-11-32-232, soph. L Abby Johnson 15-0-6-398.