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Trojan volleyball heads to state again

News editor

Playing in the state volleyball tournament has become an almost annual ritual for the Sandy Arnold-coached Hillsboro Trojans, who’ve won three consecutive titles.

They’ll be gunning for a fourth crown after winning Saturday’s substate tournament in steamy Brown Gymnasium, thanks in part, players said, to another team ritual.

The Trojans had little trouble dispatching Lyons and Beloit to reach the championship match, and won the first set against Southeast of Saline 25-18. Hillsboro surrendered the lead at 16-17 in the second set, and Southeast held on for a 2-point win.

“We were getting upset and nervous, and we weren’t staying calm,” Lakyn Johnson said.

“I think we got really scattered,” Shelly Arnold said. “We weren’t very calm. We weren’t really attacking or playing our game like we did the first game.”

Between games two and three, it was time to invoke the ritual. Johnson hinted at part of it.

“We always do this thing when we lose, we turn around and touch the ground, and come back with a clean slate,” she said.

Arnold’s description was more explicit.

“We always have this ritual where we put our eyebrows up, and we go around the circle and say ‘Eyebrows up,’ like we’re smiling,” Arnold said. “Then everyone turns around and touches the floor, and that gives us a new feeling like ‘We can do this.’ It’s a little thing that makes a big difference.”

Ritual completed, Hillsboro came out rejuvenated for the third set, and punched their ticket for state with a convincing 25-15 win.

Coach Arnold said anything that kept her players loose and focused was fine with her.

“I like when they do that stuff,” Arnold said. “They were playing ‘Duck, Duck, Goose’ before the whole day started. I’m sure people thought they were nuts, but to me if that’s making them happy and it’s bringing them together, I’m OK with that.”

Perhaps she’s OK with it in part because Arnold has some rituals of her own.

“I’m a superstitious kind of coach,” she said. “I won’t use the same lineup sheet. Officials will try to give it back to me and I’ll say, ‘You’re going to have to throw that away because I’m not going to use it.’”

Superstition is useless without talent, and aside from that one loss, the Trojans’ arsenal was clicking most of the day.

“Coach told us that we need to thrive in the moment and thrive in the competition,” Sinclair said. “The passing was great today, and that was a big part of why the sets were on and the hitters were executing.”

Power hitter Alex Ratzlaff time and again fooled opponents with soft lobs and pushes to open holes for scores. Defenders prepping to block third-shot kills were tripped up when setters Arnold and Sinclair unexpectedly sent second touches over the net. The hard-serving Trojans occasionally stroked soft, arching serves that left receivers sprawled on the floor. Misdirection, Sinclair said, is critical to the team’s success.

“Mixing it up is huge for us,” she said. “When we can throw off their defense, it’s really important.”

A steady stream of spectators leaving the gym to cool down in 85-degree weather outside testified to the sweltering heat inside. The Trojans took it in stride.

“We love the heat in the gym,” Sinclair said. “A lot of teams don’t like it, but we love it and we’re used to it.”

Coach Arnold said the team will spend time Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday focusing on each of the three teams in their pool of the state tournament — Silver Lake, ranked first in Class 3A, fourth-ranked Hesston, and Nemaha Central.

“We’ll talk about what each team is going to bring and how we’re going to have to defend it,” Arnold said. “There will be teams there that won’t have as good a record, but they’re going to be good.”

Sinclair had her own thoughts about what the Trojans need to do to prep for state.

“This week we need to focus on controlling the ball and being aggressive,” she said. “It throws people out of their offense when we attack, when we keep being aggressive with our hits and mixing it up. Our defense is huge, getting the touch on the block, and picking it up in the back row, we’ll need to do that this weekend.”

The Trojans start the tournament against Nemaha Central at 3:30 p.m. Friday at White Auditorium in Emporia.

Last modified Oct. 30, 2014

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