With the addition of seven schools and the conference being split into two divisions this season, the Metro Suburban will have a fresh look regarding the race for the girls volleyball title. The Bulldogs will compete in the Metro Suburban West with Aurora Central Catholic, Fenton, Glenbard South, Immaculate Conception, St. Edward and Wheaton Academy.

While the infusion of new competition should liven up the league race, the Riverside-Brookfield High School program’s approach remains fundamentally unchanged.

“We always talk about playing hard and competing in every match, regardless of the circumstance,” RBHS coach Dan Bonarigo said. “Our conference is wide open this year. The conference should be very competitive and should have some very compelling matches.”

Bonarigo’s coaching philosophy has worked well for the program. Over six seasons, he has guided the Bulldogs to a 131-90 record and two regional championships.

Last season, the Bulldogs finished 20-16 and fourth in the Metro Suburban with a 7-5 record. They lost to Downers Grove North in a regional championship match.

While a few key players like Monica Kasper (Carthage College), Amanda Lelivelt (Franklin College) and setter Amy Frey graduated, the team welcomes back a nice mix of multiple classes. Senior outside hitters Paola Lehman and Katie O’Connell are back, along with senior libero Natalia Gheewala and senior outside hitter Natalie Wanner. Setter Olivia Gyssler, middle hitter Nicole LaBelle, hitter Lana Herrmann and defensive specialist Selene Anaya headline the juniors.

Lastly, 6-7 sophomore middle hitter Dana Rettke is a promising newcomer posted to make a huge impact offensively. Rettke is also a burgeoning star on the RBHS basketball team. Fellow sophomores Gia Cinkay and setter Maria Gonzales are also expected to contribute. Nerija Cuplinskas, a junior outside hitter, could also see playing time.

“Our strength will be defensive play,” Bonarigo said. “Once again, we hope to prolong rallies by playing tough defense and wear teams out.  Our serve receive and offensive distribution will be our major areas of improvement over the first few weeks of competition. “

The Bulldogs split their first two matches this season. After a season-opening loss to Nazareth, RBHS rebounded well with a 26-24, 25-23 conference win against Wheaton Academy. Trailing in the opening game 24-22, the Bulldogs reeled off four points to win by two. In the second game, Wheaton Academy rallied down 17-7 however RBHS held on to take the game and sweep the match.

Lehman led RBHS with six kills, two aces and five digs, while Gheewala (four aces, six digs) and O’Connell (four kills, four digs) also played well.

The Bulldogs host Fenton on Thursday, Sept. 11, at 5:30 p.m.

Competing in a beefed-up conference, the Bulldogs realize their schedule appears as tough as ever.

“We’re playing in the very tough Rich East Tournament the last weekend in September,” Bonarigo said. “We are looking forward to meeting Glenbard South twice in conference play, as well as Immaculate Conception. We also have a non-conference match with Oak Park and River Forest, which is always a great match.”