Dynamic duo

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Larsen, Lemke work well together on court

Greg Bates, Times Herald Correspondent

High school volleyball teams taking on Oconto Falls this season, consider this your warning.

The Panthers have a deadly duo in seniors McKenna Larsen and Carly Lemke, and both know how to kill — spiking the volleyball, that is.

Larsen and Lemke have been playing together for years, and their hard work has culminated into a great start to the season. The pair has helped Oconto Falls jump out to a 13-1 record, and Larsen and Lemke are among the top players in the state in hitting percentage. Larsen ranks fourth at 44 percent and Lemke 12th at 37.4 percent (through games on Sept. 18).

Since they’ve been teammates for so long, Larsen and Lemke know one another’s tendencies and have a good feel to where they will be on each possession.

“We’ve been working together for sure since freshman year on varsity and being in middle school on the same teams and always playing club together,” said Larsen, who was named Wissports.net athlete of the week for Sept. 9-15. “It’s kind of a childhood best friend thing. She’s always going to be there for me and I’m always going to be there for her, so I think that helps out on the floor, too.”

“We’ve known each other pretty much forever,” Lemke said. “We work really hard every day in practice together and we’re always pushing each other harder and harder, and I think we’re just a great pair together.”

Larsen and Lemke have each had big impacts on the Oconto Falls program over the years. Both are four-year starters who finished as the team leaders last season in every major offensive and defensive categories.

Larsen, who plays setter/outside hitter, and Lemke, a middle hitter, are on the court together a lot, but they never share the front row at the same time. When Lemke’s at the net in the front, Larsen is in the back and when Larsen rotates around to the front, Lemke is substituted out.

“McKenna starts out serving and sets right away to Carly when we have the serve, so that’s three rotations that she can feed OVERSET FOLLOWS:her,” Panthers coach Dawn Larsen said. “In that sense, that’s the key to get our offense started. When we receive, McKenna puts the first one away, then we have Carly coming in. Carly’s out of the game when McKenna’s in the front row, so she’s basically our go-to, although we do have other people we can go to.”

Liz Watzka is Larsen’s setter and is second on the team in assists. Larsen is the team-leader in helpers with 177, mostly because she is setting to Lemke.

“I love hitting off of her,” Lemke said. “I’m very grateful that we can play together and I can have such a great setter..”

Larsen is confident that when she sets up Lemke, her teammate is going to pound the ball over the net.

At 6-foot, Lemke uses height to her advantage. She qualified for the WIAA Division 2 state track and field meet last season in the high jump, and Lemke’s leaping ability helps her on the court.

“Sometimes we’ve got to get on McKenna a little bit to set Carly a little bit higher because Carly can see around the block and can use a tip,” coach Larsen said.

As of Sept. 20, Lemke is leading the Panthers in kills with 144 and Larsen is second with 143.

“McKenna is so deceptive with her set. She has really become a college-level setter,” coach Larsen said. “That’s not something I can teach her, it’s just from her playing and being around the game.”

Larsen will be playing college volleyball as well as softball next season at NCAA Division II Winona State University in Winona, Minn. Lemke is looking at competing in the high jump when she goes off to school next year.

“I kind of always wanted to play volleyball, but I’m just not sure,” Lemke said. “I think maybe high jump will be my thing in college.”

Larsen and Lemke, who are also the top two basketball players for Oconto Falls, each spent the past summer playing on club teams at the Wisconsin Volleyball Academy in Appleton. Despite competing on different squads, both girls had valuable experiences.

Over the summer, Larsen concentrated on getting better at setting and her back-row play. Lemke feels she improved on her blocking and being able to hit from more areas on the floor, especially the right side of the court.

“Carly is quicker,” coach Larsen said. “I think her confidence has really grown. She knows she’s one of the best middle hitters around.”

Larsen and Lemke have both consistently improved over the years, and for that they have each other to thank.

“I think they both make one another better,” coach Larsen said. “McKenna delivering to Carly, she’s definitely made Carly better. And they push one another. They push one another in the weight room. They push one another all the time.”