Although Circle seniors Kyrstie Ehm and Hanna Flaming were starters on the volleyball team as freshmen, no pressure was placed on them. They were contributors, of course, but the attention was squarely on seniors.
Ehm and Flaming used that time to watch and learn. They picked up on the tradition of the Thunderbirds' successful program and learned how to be leaders.
Circle has benefited as Ehm and Flaming racked up nearly 1,400 kills in the past three seasons.
This season, though, the expectations have skyrocketed. The goal is a Class 4A tournament berth, which has eluded the Thunderbirds since 2006.
"They know what it takes, and they want to take us back" to state, Circle coach Shelly Nibarger said.
Both were middle hitters as freshmen, but have played outside ever since.
They've been strong leaders, too. Close friends, they have played sports together since fifth grade. Their personalities are different — Ehm (5-foot-10) is more serious, more intense, while Flaming (5-11) is easygoing and quick with witty comebacks. Ehm's preferred sport is basketball, while Flaming's is volleyball.
Ehm, a varsity basketball player since her freshman season, chose not to play offseason volleyball after the 2009 season, and it took her some time to get back. Once she got her timing down again, she was fine. Credit her pure athleticism.
"She makes it look effortless," Nibarger said. "She's a very smooth, natural athlete out there.... But we're especially strong when she's on the back row because her passing and defensive skills are so good."
Flaming's natural ability is just as obvious. Flaming, a varsity basketball player the past two seasons, played at the national level in volleyball during the summer.
Her focus was improving her passing, and she spent much of her offseason perfecting it.
"She earned a back-row position last year, and she's a threat, a valuable threat for us with her back-row attack," Nibarger said.
Flaming's hitting has improved, too. She led Circle with 403 kills last season.
"She's developing more speed through her approach, and it's contributing to more power," Nibarger said.
Ehm and Flaming have gotten the majority of Circle's sets over the past two seasons. The problem is, opponents expected it, and Circle ultimately suffered because of that.
While Ehm and Flaming will continue to be focal points of the Thunderbirds' offense, other players will be bigger options. Setter Aimi Orton, a transfer from Andale, will also look for senior middle Haley Barrett.
"Mixing it up is important because other teams tend to expect and wait for us to hit," Flaming said. "If we send it some place else, it throws off the defense."
Ultimately, it all comes back to Ehm and Flaming.
"I've told them from the onset that they need to set the tone each and every day in practice," Nibarger said. "They need to be the first ones out on the floor. They need to let their teammates know that this season is important to them and communicate their goals.... I have no doubts they will provide that."