Eau Claire North’s volleyball practice on Monday started with something unusual: laughter.

The girls gathered around new head coach Kendra Pagel as they choose who would represent the team on the upcoming homecoming court.

It’s not that Pagel doesn’t let her girls have fun, but her coaching style is more intense than her predecessor, Perris Cooley.

“Our practices were definitely more chill (under Cooley),” senior Olivia Laube said. “Kendra likes to push us hard.”

The girls say they’ve been receptive to the change. Cooley’s coaching style was successful — he led the team to some of its best volleyball seasons ever — but the girls have enjoyed the extra push from the former Regis volleyball coach.

“We’ve done more running than we did in the past,” senior Bailey Thompson said. “It hasn’t been too crazy that we’re ready to quit. I like it.”

Pagel said she thinks it’s what the girls have been looking for. Her team is filled with seniors and now they’re looking for that extra push in their final year.

“I think coming in and being a little bit harder on them, while still caring... I think they were waiting for that,” Pagel said. “A lot of the senior leaders, they just grabbed onto that idea and it’s kind of progressed throughout the whole team.”

The girls now have competitions in practice with something on the line. They’ll scrimmage with one another and the loser will have to run laps or deal with some other consequence, according to senior Jenna Haselwander.

“She works to get the best out of all of us,” Haselwander said.

It helps that Pagel is a school counselor and, according to senior Maria Venne, she knows how to deal with the girls’ emotions.

“She knows people and how they’re feeling just by looking at them,” Venne said. “So if someone is feeling down or not having the best day, she’ll pull us aside and ask what’s wrong with our personal lives. It’s just comforting to know that she’s there as a friend and not just a coach all the time.”

It’s that caring side that allows Pagel to get away with pushing her girls so hard.

“She gives me so much more confidence,” Venne said.

Pagel’s new practice schedule even has a new quirk that the girls weren’t expecting.

Two or three times a month the team heads to the swimming pool to get off their knees and work on different areas of their body.

“I’ve heard that it’s really good on your body with sore muscles,” Pagel said.

It gave the girls a break from the monotonousness of volleyball activities, but the workout wasn’t just for team bonding and fun. The girls had to swim with just their arms, then do the same workout with just their legs, Laube said.

“When I was in the pool, I gave a lot of credit to people who actually swim, because it was way harder than I thought it was going to be,” Thompson said. “But in the days after I was super thankful that we did it because I was way less sore, so that was nice.”

Pagel says her coaching style is similar to the one she used during her four years at Regis, where she led the Ramblers their first volleyball state championship in school history in 2013.

She’s hoping to continue that success this season, where she said she expects the Huskies will finish second in the Big Rivers, behind a dominant River Falls team.

For the girls, it’s about coming together for one last year and finishing strong.

“We’re often known as underdogs this year,” Laube said, “but I think by the end of the season we’ll all come together and be that amazing team that will be hard to beat.”