NORTH SIOUX CITY — In 2021, Jorja VanDenHul had to step up her game.
The Dakota Valley High School junior knew coming into the season that she was going to play a major role in the Panthers’ offense, after the graduation of Rachel Rosenquist.
VanDenHul’s role took on even greater importance in the offseason, when returning star senior Sophia Atchison was lost for the year after tearing her ACL in summer workouts.
“At the beginning of the year, when we lost Sophie, that was a huge hole,” Dakota Valley coach Mary Miller said. “That was 300 kills that we had to come up with, so you’ve got to give credit to these young ladies for persevering and buying into our system, and continually working to get better.”
VanDenHul stepped up in Atchison's absence, and filled those shoes in Cinderella fashion.
The 2021 season was a big one for VanDenHul. She emerged as a team leader, a standout middle hitter, and worthy of the title: Player of the Year.
“I feel really grateful to be chosen for that position, and it’s an honor,” VanDenHul said. “I’ve worked hard and also my teammates have gotten me to where I am, my coaches have gotten me to where I am, and I just am grateful.”
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The Panthers’ junior, who had 131 kills as a sophomore in 2020, upped her total to a team-high 357 kills in 2021, good for seventh-highest in South Dakota’s Class A.
For VanDenHul, this season was a tremendous step forward. When Atchison went down, VanDenHul was told that she would need to pick up much of the slack.
“(Miller) definitely told me that I was going to have to step up and kind of be a leader, just because we lost a few of our great players,” VanDenHul said. “I was becoming older and I was more experienced, so I just had to help lead. And I have teammates that support me, encourage me, and get me to places that I want to be.”
Even VanDenHul was surprised by the numbers she put up. As a middle hitter, she didn’t think that it would be possible for her get so many kills, but she proved to be a potent offensive threat for the Panthers.
“She’s hard to stop,” Miller said. “We used her in all parts of the net. She didn’t just hit middle. She hit left, she hit right, so that is a credit to our passers, getting her the ball and also a credit to our setters for being able to set her anywhere along the net.”
Toward the start of the season, both Miller and VanDenHul admit that they were a bit unsure of how things were going to play out for the Panthers.
The team was coming off back to back appearances in the South Dakota Class A state title game, both of which were losses to Sioux Falls Christian. Following Atchison’s injury, some worries started to creep in about whether Dakota Valley could make another deep playoff run.
“It definitely did go through my mind, because there were teams around us that were getting better and better and when you go on a neutral site a lot of times, things happen,” Miller said. “It definitely did cross my mind.”
Once the season began, the Panthers were just fine. Dakota Valley started its season 7-0 and eventually finished with a 28-9 overall mark.
The Panthers fell short of another title matchup with Sioux Falls Christian, after a 3-2 loss to Garretson in the state semifinals. But the Panthers did manage to clinch third-place at state, with a 3-0 sweep over Wagner this past Saturday.
VanDenHul finished with 11 kills in that match, to put her at 357 on the year. That total puts her 21 kills ahead of South Dakota eighth-place finisher Ally Mullaney of Miller, and five back of sixth-place Ana Egge of Rapid City Christian.
With all the challenges the Panthers faced, this season was anything but easy. It will only get more difficult next season, as Dakota Valley bids farewell to three of its seniors starters, in Madeline Stout, Tori Schulz, and Sammi Archer.
But VanDenHul is confident that she and her fellow 2022 returners can do the work necessary to get the team all the way back to state in her senior year.
“We’re just going to have to work to fill those positions,” VanDenHul said. “But I think we can do it, and I think we can become equal to, or as good as our team was this year, and hopefully make it to state again.”