Lueckenhoff takes over Blair Oaks program looking for third straight state title

Blair Oaks outside hitter Autumn Bax prepares to serve the ball during last season’s championship match against California in the Class 3 District 8 Tournament at California. (Greg Jackson/News Tribune)

WARDSVILLE -- Danielle Lueckenhoff is ready to be back on the Blair Oaks sideline.

She’s returning to coach her alma mater on the volleyball court, and that starts today in the Brace for Impact Tournament at Legacy VTC in Fenton.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” Lueckenhoff said. “The girls have really been adaptable and they’ve been really open-minded with the things that I think are important in our program. They’re excited, I’m excited, we’re just ready to build this program.”

Lueckenhoff inherits a program coming off back-to-back Class 3 state championships and a 33-3-1 record. On top of that, the Lady Falcons are returning three all-state players.

“We have a really unique situation going on,” Lueckenhoff said, “but I like to tell my girls we’re here to focus on the present.”

Outside hitter Autumn Bax returns for her senior season as a two-time all-state player. Bax, who committed to play volleyball next season at Lindenwood, already holds the program’s career kills record at 1,061 through three seasons.

Bax led the Lady Falcons with 526 kills in 2022, but her defense -- she was second on the team with 315 digs -- allows her to stay on the court throughout a rotation.

“That’s something we’re really trying to work with her on, keeping that confidence in what she can do, not only on the front row but on the back row,” Lueckenhoff said. “One of the best pieces she brings to the table is the fact that she’s smart with the ball. Yes, she can swing really hard, but that’s not what volleyball is all about.”

Bailey Braun, a senior outside hitter, is another returning all-state player for the Lady Falcons. She tallied 345 kills last season and also finished with 202 digs.

“Bailey is really strong, she’s really smart with the ball,” Lueckenhoff said. “I can see some really great things coming from her this year.”

The third returning all-state player is senior setter Libby Juergensmeyer, who finished with an astounding 1,050 assists in 37 matches played. She averaged 10.2 assists per set while leading Blair Oaks’ 5-1 offense.

“Her energy is unstoppable, she brings a lot to the table,” Lueckenhoff said. “Of course, setters are known to drive that court, but I think Libby does it in a way that encompasses and draws on the strength of our hitters and our other players on the court.”

Also playing outside hitter for the Lady Falcons this season are juniors Chloe Heislen and Gabby Horn, while seniors Aubrey Sandbothe and Abbey Heckman will both be middle hitters.

“That’s part of that dynamic offense that we have to build,” Lueckenhoff said. “We don’t have just one solid hitter in the front row, I want 3-5 hitters on the court at all times.”

Senior Amber Samson will be the libero and junior Alyssa Henry will play defensive specialist. Senior Alison Sporleder will back up Juergensmeyer at setter.

Blair Oaks returns seven players from last year’s state championship team. Heckman, Horn and Sandbothe also played in last season’s Final Four.

“I feel like we’ve been really lucky to have girls that have the experience of being on the varsity court,” Lueckenhoff said. “We have a couple of younger girls that are going to be joining us this year, so trying to get those two pieces to mesh together is really going to be our biggest focus.”

Blair Oaks played Wednesday in the Hickman Jamboree, winning all three sets against Sedalia Sacred Heart and dropping three sets to Hickman.

This will be Blair Oaks’ second straight season at the Brace for Impact Tournament. The Lady Falcons play two pool-play matches today -- against Hillsboro at 6 p.m. and Rockwood Summit at 8 p.m. -- and finish pool play with a 10 a.m. match Saturday against Mater Dei (Ill.), which was a Class 2A state quarterfinalist last season.

“The girls are just so excited about this weekend,” Lueckenhoff said. “They’re getting excited to go see and play difficult teams, hard teams. That’s how we’re going to grow together.”

The Lady Falcons will also play in the West Plains Showdown on Sept. 9 and the Lutheran: St. Charles Tournament -- a new tournament to the schedule -- on Sept. 22-23.

Blair Oaks enters the season riding a streak of 12 consecutive Tri-County Conference championships, which includes 58 straight conference match wins. However, teams like California and Eldon -- which also reached the Class 3 Final Four last season -- are itching to snap the Lady Falcons’ run.

“You have that state championship pressure, but then you have all those little pieces that have to build up to that,” Lueckenhoff said. “They’re going to work hard to make that happen again.”

Blair Oaks faces Sullivan on Tuesday for its home opener and begins conference play Thursday at home against School of the Osage.

“I’m really ecstatic,” said Lueckenhoff, who played volleyball at Blair Oaks from 2009-12. “I’m excited to see our girls go out there and do what they already do really well.”