Kelli Whitaker’s squad has put in the hours. Now, it’s time to reap the benefits.

Like its county rival Mt. Vernon, New Palestine returns essentially every piece from a team that finished 25-10 last season.

The Dragon’s top-two hitters and setter return, and with a new defensive piece in place, as well as the addition of a talented freshman, Whitaker could not be more anxious for the 2016 season.

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University of the Pacific commit Allison Dennemann, a junior, will lead the team at the net, while classmate Mia Long will be the No. 2 option. Long and lanky, Dennemann led New Palestine with 465 kills last year while Long added 277.

“She (Dennemann) is so talented, her arm swing is so fast and she has any shot a player could want,” Whitaker said. “She is extremely dynamic and is better than she has ever been before.

“(Long) is extremely consistent and powerful. Having her move to the outside will allow her to get more balls. She is looking excellent out there. We should always have someone great up there (in the front).”

Senior setter Kara Morris also is back after totaling 835 assists last season. She will have plenty of offensive options this year as freshman Kaylin Casner is also expected to contribute in the front row.

“Kara is the player I communicate the most with on the court, and she is so fun to coach,” Whitaker said. “I think (Casner) is going to start and play an immediate impact. She has so much potential and is super athletic.”

Defensively, sophomore Lydia Jones will be a staple as a libero. Jones also is a skilled offensive hitter, Whitaker said, but having her to rely on in the back row should pay dividends.

Junior middle blockers Katie Bancroft (5-foot-10) and Jordan Brittsan (6-0) add height, while sophomore Sydney Robertson will also play a key role as a defensive specialist.

“We just had to make that decision to keep her (Jones) in the back row,” Whitaker said. “I think that is going to help our passing tremendously.”

In order to beat some of the toughest teams on its schedule, Whitaker said the Dragons, in addition to moving Jones to libero, spent extra attention on its serve receiving this summer.

“We definitely have some offensive weapons that are returning,” Whitaker said. “We knew to get us from good to great we had to work on our passing and defense. (This summer) was a lot of passing repetition and fundamentals. In pressure situations, too.”

At 3-4, New Palestine finished fifth in the HHC before losing to Bishop Chatard, 3-0, in the sectional final. Since that final loss in 2015, Whitaker said winning the sectional has been at the top of the Dragons to-do list.

“Everything we have worked on in the off season and everything we are doing now is for that one goal,” she said. “We want it badly, and the girls are working harder than they ever have.

“On the first day of practice, I walked in the gym and they were breathing heavy. They had run the cross country trail.”

MT. VERNON

After completing one of the best seasons in school history and earning a sectional title last year, Mt. Vernon returns a core group of players this season with hopes of going one step further.

Marauders head coach Eric Bulmahn brings back a deep senior class, including 2015 Hancock County Co-Players of the Year in Jaclyn Bulmahn and Julia Wayer.

Bulmahn, a dominant outside hitter who is verbally committed to Valparaiso University, led Hancock County with 496 kills last season (5.4 per set) while Wayer, a highly reliable libero, led the county with 557 digs.

In all, 10 of the 13 players from last season’s 29-5 team return.

But with Bulmahn, a Class 4A second-team All-State player in 2015, and Wayer leading the way offensively and defensively, Mt. Vernon, which finished 5-2 in a competitive Hoosier Heritage Conference, has big goals this season.

“Expectations are indeed very high, and the players know that each year has to stand on it’s own, so they will need to work hard and not take anything for granted,” Bulmahn said, who enters his third season in control.

Mt. Vernon also returns seniors Ashton Barr (Ohio Dominican University commit), Kari Kramer, Abby Anderson, Maddie Keerns and Annie McCain.

Barr recorded 149 kills, 45 aces, 190 digs and 361 assists in a do-it-all role for the Marauders last season, while Kramer led the team in blocks. Keerns adds a defensive presence, while McCain and Anderson add height and athleticism at the net.

“Ashton Barr’s offensive firepower is at an all-time high, which will complement improved middles (hitters) Kari Kramer and Abby Anderson,” Bulmahn said. “Senior Maddie Keerns is playing great, providing us one of the best backcourts in the state. Senior Anne McCain provides us with depth and experience on the pins.”

The team’s main setter, junior Meridan Eads (627 assists), played with fellow juniors Grace Hurst (defensive specialist) and Sarah Herman (outside hitter) during the summer on Vision Volleyball’s 16 Elite team. She had a great amount of success against some of the best competition in the nation, Bulmahn said.

With that much depth returning, Bulmahn said he installed a more complicated system this summer, although in limited time, in hopes of competing with the top teams in the state. And the Marauders won’t just be playing those teams at the end of the year. Bulmahn took it upon himself to add a group of monsters to the team’s regular-season schedule.

“Even though it would be easy to put together a 20-win schedule, that won’t help prepare us for the postseason tournament and HHC conference play,” he said. “We’ve added three teams ranked in the preseason top five (Cathedral, Hamilton Southeastern and Lawrence North), as well as top-10 Brownsburg, and perennial 3A powerhouse Bellmont out of the Fort Wayne area.

“You add No. 2 ranked Yorktown, Delta, Zionsville and Westfield, and we have an opportunity to beat some great teams — and believe in our ability to win.”

Yorktown won the conference last season at 7-0 while Delta was second at 6-1. Mt. Vernon finished third before New Castle (4-3).

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Kris Mills is a sports reporter at the Greenfield Daily Reporter. He can be reached at 317-477-3230 or kmills@greenfieldreporter.com.