The letters across the shoulders on the back of the jersey said a lot: Crusaders.

If a girls athlete at Mankato Loyola wanted to play a varsity sport last season, it would have been a cooperatively sponsored program with Mankato East, Nicollet, St. Clair, Cleveland, Madelia or Lake Crystal Wellcome Memorial.

But this season, the volleyball team can wear Crusaders gear.

After two seasons of fielding only lower-level teams because of poor numbers, Loyola once again has a varsity volleyball team, without a co-op partner, this season.

“It’s nice to have a Loyola team and play every game here at Fitz,” senior Megan Frutiger said. “In basketball, it’s fun to play with Nicollet, and it’s good when two schools can come together and cheer for each other. But it’s also nice to have Loyola fans cheering for a Loyola team.”

The Crusaders opened the season Tuesday with a 25-18, 25-23, 20-25, 25-13 nonconference loss to Sleepy Eye at Fitzgerald gym. It was a small, but vocal Loyola crowd, supporting a program trying to build a foundation for future success.

“It was really important that people can come out and watch us play varsity games,” Frutiger said. “I think the crowds will be bigger, especially since we haven’t had a varsity for two years. We’ve done well on B squad, and now we have to try to get to a higher level.”

Frutiger and senior setter Zoey Weller are the most experienced of the Crusaders, having played varsity in other sports. Weller was on the Loyola volleyball roster as a freshman.

“Those two provide great leadership,” Loyola coach Dave Nixon said. “They’ve played in several varsity games in other sports. They know how to compete, and they’re steady, level-headed players. We’ll rely on them a lot.”

There are 12 players on the varsity roster. Senior Hailey Barker is an outside hitter, though she’s sidelined with a sprained ankle. Senior Desi Aguillon will play at middle hitter.

Juniors Addison Fraze and Sami Naples will be hitters, and classmate Allie Pawlitschek is the libero. Sophomores Paige Frutiger and Sienna Pawlitschek will add depth at a hitter position.

“We planned on having a varsity last season, but we had only six players returning in grade 9 through 12,” Nixon said. “It was good experience (to play a junior-varsity) schedule, and we improved a lot in the last two years. We just have to get the mindset of learning to compete and what it takes to win and making good decisions.

“When I was hired (two years ago), we talked about co-oping, but we wanted to maintain the Loyola identity. We’ve been fortunate to do that, and we have good numbers coming up.”

On Tuesday, the Crusaders were competitive in the first two sets, leading 21-20 in the second set before losing 25-23. Loyola won he third set, setting off a loud cheer on the court and in the stands.

“I think this was a really good first step,” Frutiger said. “I think we played better each (set).”

Fraze led Loyola with eight kills, 11 digs and three ace serves, while Frutiger had seven kills, 10 digs and three ace serves. Weller made 19 assists and nine digs with two ace serves.

Alexa Steffl and Brittney Dittbenner led the Indians with 12 kills apiece, and Dittbenner also had 15 digs. McKenna Strong added nine kills and two blocks, and Sandy Flores had 25 assists and 23 digs.

Sleepy Eye (2-0) plays Tuesday at Sleepy Eye St. Mary’s. Loyola hosts New Century Academy on Tuesday.

“We’re not focusing on wins and losses,” Nixon said. “We want to improve every day and play our best volleyball at the end of the season. We’re going to take some lumps, but if you focus on the little things and play the right way, things fall into place more times than not.”

Follow Chad Courrier on Twitter @ChadCourrier.

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