The Hillsboro High School volleyball team clinched a spot in the 3A state tournament Friday in Salina with a 25-14 and 25-22 victory over Sedgwick in the sub-state final Saturday in Halstead.
Head coach Sandy Arnold was more relieved than excited after the victory. After the Trojans lost to Sedgwick on Oct. 16, she had pondered a possible matchup with the Cardinals all week.
“I didn’t mind losing to Sedgwick Tuesday if we would have played well,” Arnold said.
She did not want to over-emphasize a match against top-seeded Sedgwick because the Trojans still needed to get past three other teams, Marion and either Trinity Catholic or league foe Haven.
While her coach was suffering secret anxiety, hitter Tena Loewen never had a moment’s doubt that the Trojans would advance. Then again, it’s difficult for Loewen, Maci Schlehuber, Erin Loewen, Taylor Thiessen, Christina Morris, or Ashley Bartel to think of failure when all they’ve experienced is success. This group of seniors has gone to state in every team sport since they were freshmen.
“It’s exciting,” Tena Loewen said. “It never sinks in until you actually get to Salina and get on the floor.”
Surprisingly that string of four consecutive state berths was on the line against Haven in the second round.
After defeating Haven 25-21 in the first game, Hillsboro faced a 14-11 deficit in the second game. Driven by a five-serve streak by Addie Lackey with a thunderous kill by Alex Ratzlaff and a Schlehuber tip, the Trojans came back to take the lead, 20-18. After two Hillsboro errors, Haven took the lead again, 22-21. A Ratzlaff kill and Schlehuber tip gave the Trojans another lead at 23-22. Three more errors resulted in Haven taking the game 25-23.
Arnold said the Haven team Hillsboro played Saturday was much different from the club the Trojans defeated easily on Sept. 11. In that time, the Wildcats developed a gritty identity. On Saturday, their back row players kept balls alive that should have landed on the hardwood.
“Maybe I didn’t prepare us enough for Haven,” Arnold said. “I think (the team) had the attitude of let’s just get done and go beat Sedgwick.”
With their state title defense hanging in the balance, the Trojans responded as they have all season — by raising their game.
The Trojans opened the third game with a quick hit to Ratzlaff over the middle of the net, an uncharacteristic tactic from Hillsboro. With a four-serve streak from Danae Bina, the Trojans attacked with multiple hitters from multiple angles.
Lackey, leaping from the right side, delivered a back set from Schlehuber directly into the open spot of the Haven defense. Middle hitter Shannon Heiser then drilled a spike to the Haven backline. Tena Loewen crushed a kill into the middle of the court from the left side of the net. With a dig from Bina, Ratzlaff delivered a kill from the back row.
The Trojans found themselves up 8-2 with the flurry of offense and Ratzlaff was only getting started. This season Ratzlaff had shown flashes of brilliance as a freshman hitter. On Saturday all of her skills were on display as if she was unleashed on Hillsboro’s opponents.
“She really stepped up today,” Arnold said.
Against Haven, Ratzlaff had kills over the middle, right, and left side of the net. Rare for a freshman, she was equally fierce from the back row. She was hitting down the line, to the back corners, near corners, and middle of the court. She would also clean up errant passes that sailed into the Hillsboro zone. She accounted for 11 of Hillsboro’s 25 points in the match.
Adding to her hitting prowess, Ratzlaff’s passing and blocking were also sharp, although more against Sedgwick.
The climax in the game against Haven was a five-serve streak featuring four aces. Ratzlaff rolled her first ace over the net and it landed casually in front of the Haven middle hitter. She then crushed her next serve to the backline where it dropped in play past dumbfounded defenders. She then proceeded to roll two more serves over before Haven would finally field one of her serves.
“God was really with me today,” Ratzlaff said. “As a freshman, I just had to come in and do my part.”
The onslaught resulted in 16-5 and 21-7 leads for Hillsboro before Tena Loewen hit an ace to give the Trojans the game, 25-9.
In the rematch against Sedgwick, every Trojan had to contribute to the two-game victory.
After trading points throughout game one, Schlehuber stepped up to provide a seven-serve streak to put Hillsboro up 16-9. Arnold modified her lineups against Sedgwick to put more blockers in against the Cardinals front line players, three of which were more than 6-feet tall. This season it was rare for Schlehuber, Tena Loewen, Bina, Lackey, or Ratzlaff to ever be substituted.
When Schlehuber was serving, the Trojans used a front of Erin Loewen, Tena Loewen, and Ratzlaff with a back row with Schlehuber, Bina, and Lackey. The combination gave Hillsboro an ideal set of passers and hitters.
Danae Bina had a five-serve streak to put Hillsboro up 24-14. When Bina was on the floor, Schlehuber went to the bench with Erin Loewen, Tena Loewen, and Heiser up front and Ratzlaff, Lackey, and Bina in back. The onus was on Erin Loewen to deliver sets in this combination to keep rallies going. Ratzlaff and Lackey were key passers in this set. Two Lackey kills helped end the first game, 25-14.
Arnold started each game with Sedgwick ready to have Ratzlaff serve. In that lineup, Bina went to the bench and Erin Loewen, Tena Loewen, and Heiser played up front and Schlehuber with Ratzlaff, and Lackey in the back.
However, the Trojans still needed to execute to make those adjustments work. Schlehuber posted her best setting performance of the season, delivering clean sets to the right spots. The highlight for Schlehuber was a set to Lackey that allowed the junior hitter to smoke a spike down the left sideline to put Hillsboro up 24-22 in the second game.
“The sets were a lot more consistent,” Tena Loewen said. “She is getting a lot more confident in herself, which is great to see.”
That confidence is born out of a timing built with each hitter in practice.
“I don’t know how many days she stayed after to work with each individual hitter,” Ratzlaff said.
Blocks by Erin Loewen and Ratzlaff were key against Sedgwick. Ratzlaff had two blocks in a row to help put the Trojans up 15-12. All the Trojan hitters were apt to lay tips in behind Sedgwick blockers, using more finesse then the Trojans have displayed this season.
Lackey had another solid all around performance. She had a five-serve streak and she had two of the final three points for Hillsboro.
Tena Loewen had an ace in a three-serve streak to put Hillsboro up 23-21. The serve continued to be a weapon for the Trojans as it has all season. Ratzlaff finished the game against Sedgwick with a kill over the middle, 25-22.
“They responded to the challenge,” Arnold said of her team.