---- — Last year's National Trail Conference champions certainly want to repeat as champions in the 2013 season.
But the St. Anthony Bulldogs and coach Kristie Bailey know it won't be easy with strong teams littered throughout the conference.
"Stew-Stras is going to bring a great team," Bailey said. "St. Elmo/Brownstown's going to have a monster team. Those two teams are going to be dominant and will give us a run for our money."
The Bulldogs have been nothing if not strong over the past few years. St. Anthony compiled a 31-7 record in 2011, and returned just three players in 2012. They barely blinked, winning the NTC tournament and won double-digit games in the regular season.
They'll be ready, however, taking on a traditionally tough schedule. It's the St. Anthony way across the Bulldogs' number of sports, and Bailey won't buck the trend.
"I'm not a person who's really big on my record. Playing hard teams is the way we win regionals," she said. "We play a really tough schedule, September is going to be tough for us. We try to bulk up our season, we try to play the hardest schedule we can."
The Bulldogs lost Meghan Woltman and Kassy Dammerman to graduation, but return eight players that contributed last year.
First and foremost is senior setter Haylee Mathis, who committed last year to play Division I volleyball at Washington State.
Her setting and passing set up the Bulldog offense.
"She's very good at being a leader and controlling the game," Bailey said.
It's all about passing for Bailey and St. Anthony, with Mathis' work as a setter setting up a number of strong hitters.
Megan Nuxoll and Logan Braunecker patrol the outside for the Bulldogs, and the two juniors are expected to take a step forward after playing last year as sophomores.
Seniors Lauren Wendt and Maggie Mumm join Mathis as the team's upperclassmen, and Mumm and Wendt will work in the middle between Nuxoll and Braunecker.
If the offense flows like Bailey hopes it can, the Bulldogs could improve upon last year's NTC title. They lost to Pana in the finals of the Shelbyville regional 25-19, 25-20, giving Pana one of its best games of the year as they advanced to the Super-Sectionals before falling to Edwards County.
Now, the Bulldogs are looking for their first regional crown since 2009.
"I think we have some very good hitters. Our hitting is strong, we can run a lot of different plays," Bailey said. "It always depends on passing. And long as we can keep the ball up, we can run a fast offense."
Rachel Schultz steps in at libero, taking over for the graduated Dammerman.
St. Anthony has no games for the rest of the month, beginning its season on Sept. 3 with its annual game with Effingham for breast cancer awareness.
"We haven't beat them yet, but we're trying to," Bailey said with a laugh.
SENIORS: Haylee Mathis, Maggie Mumm, Lauren Wendt
JUNIORS: Emily Wortman, Megan Nuxoll, Rachel Schultz, Logan Braunecker
SOPHOMORES: Raven Rincker, Aly Esker, Andrea Doedtman
FRESHMEN: Makayla Koening, Jenna Woltman, Taylor Dammerman