Last season, the North Polk volleyball program hit the big time and the Comets are intent on staying there entering 2017.

North Polk had a record-setting 2016 season that saw the Comets win 37 matches and reach the state tournament for the first time in school history. In 2017, the Comets have some big shoes to fill, but the talent is there for them to compete for a Heart of Iowa Conference championship and make another run at state.

“I think we will be competitive within our conference and at our weekend tournaments,” North Polk head volleyball coach Matt Overton said. “We are going to work hard throughout the season, so that we are peaking during districts with the goal of returning to state.”

The Comets must find a way to replace all-state outside hitter and current Illinois State Saluki Hannah Becker, as well as top middle hitters Rebecca Rimathe and Riley Murphy off last year’s team. They also have to fill the libero spot vacated by Courtney Bonewitz and make up for the loss of talented server and hitter Maggie Potter.

But, fortunately for the the Comets, there is still plenty of talent to build around.

“Our biggest strength is having five returning players from last year’s state tournament team,” Overton said. “We have spots to fill, but having a core group of players that played at the state tournament will gives us an advantage in the tough games.”

Back for North Polk are senior setters Grace Nelson and Danielle Bonewitz, outside hitters Carolyn Steffen and Rebecca Ley and defensive specialist Nora Aschoff.

Having two experienced setters will go a long way in bringing the younger players on the team along. In 2016, Nelson had 518 assists, 138 digs and 40 aces in 106 sets and Danielle Bonewitz delivered 577 assists, 169 digs and 42 aces in 123 sets.

Steffen and Ley give North Polk two quality hitters. Steffen is a junior and Ley a senior.

Steffen finished with 219 kills at a .192 kill-efficiency rate and she had 175 digs, 85 aces and 21 blocks. Ley is coming back from a knee injury and she recorded 50 kills, 54 digs and 24 blocks last season.

Aschoff will move into the libero spot for her junior season. She racked up 292 digs last season.

Junior Katie Scott also has quality experience in the back row. In 2016, Scott recorded 105 digs in 58 sets.

At right-side hitter North Polk will have sophomore Hailey Becker and junior Bella Rademacher. Moving into the middle hitter position will be seniors Leah Cam and Emily Larson, and sophomore Jaedon Murphy.

Junior Liz Turk will also be counted on to help out at the varsity level.

North Polk will be among the favorites to win the HOIC this season. But the Comets must get past five-time defending champion Nevada and a strong Gilbert team that opens the season ranked No. 11 in Class 3A.

Overton also pointed out the team’s tough weekend tournament schedule at Bondurant-Farrar, BCLUW, Southeast Polk, Ballard and Oskaloosa, and stressed the importance of all home matches.

“Conference games are important and we are in a tough conference,” Overton said. “We have several weekend tournaments where we will be playing ranked 5A teams. Winning games at home in front of our fans would be meaningful to the players.”

North Polk opens the season Saturday at the Bondurant-Farrar Invitational in Bondurant. The Comets’ home opener is next Tuesday in a triangular with Ballard and Webster City.