Hillsboro High School volleyball coach Sandy Arnold was trying to figure out what made this Trojans team different than the other great teams she had in the past. It was Arnold’s first state championship in more than 20 years of coaching at three different Kansas high schools
“I’ve had great teams, my teams that didn’t make it to state won 30 games,” she said. “I felt, coming in, that because so many of these girls had been here before that we had a chance.”
When she thought further, the coach came to a conclusion that the team bought into the theme for the year. Before the Trojans broke from every huddle, the players would say “Uncommon.”
“We wanted to be uncommon and do the little things better than other people,” Arnold said.
The 2011 Trojans cemented themselves as a great team this weekend. The team showed the will to do the little things — diving for balls destined for the court, putting their fingers in harms way for blocks, and using their serves as a weapon.
“This is for all the girls that have ever played for us,” Arnold said. “All the girls who did the little things for us, they’re the ones that built this program.”
An example of that type of player from the 2011 team was junior Maci Schlehuber. Arnold said Schlehuber was not guaranteed a starting assignment at the beginning of the year but she won the job because of her ability to pass the ball and be a secondary setter.
Schlehuber had a dig in every match over the weekend in Salina. She also had two kills against Wellsville and an ace in the final against Hoisington.
But the desire to do the little things was spread throughout the Hillsboro team.
Surpassed only by Danae Bina for her propensity to dive to the hardwood for digs was junior hitter Tena Loewen. Hillsboro rarely played a game this season where Loewen did not sprawl out for a ball.
On Saturday, she was as much a presence with her serving and passing as she was at crushing spikes during the tournament. Her all-around dominant performance, especially on Saturday when she was essentially unblockable, vaulted the junior into the echelon with the greatest Marion County athletes.
Arnold said that Loewen had a great supporting cast, and the star player should savor the opportunity to play with great teammates. Hopefully those teammates also appreciate playing with someone like Loewen.
Although she is a talented player, Loewen never acts like it. She plays like she is always trying to make the team, even though the Trojans would not have made it to the state tournament without her.
This unselfish type of play is infectious and it has spread to Loewen’s star successor, sophomore Addie Lackey. At times through the weekend, Lackey was almost as good as Loewen with her hitting, but she also flashed the guile of a well-rounded game, recording digs in every match and serving well.
Hillsboro’s two starting seniors were also not afraid to do the little things for victory.
Arnold told senior setter Callie Serene before the Trojans’ two contests on Saturday that if her sets were accurate, there would be no team that could stop Hillsboro. Serene made an adjustment in the championship match against Hoisington, pushing the ball quickly to her outside hitters to not allow the defense to gain position.
Arnold also praised Serene’s serving; the senior came up with aces and serving streaks multiple times to start Trojan comebacks.
Fellow senior Krista Reimer stepped up with blocking in the tournament, especially in both matches with Hoisington. Hoisington senior hitter Mallory Flagor had to work to bend the ball around Reimer and junior Erin Loewen up front.
Serene and Reimer were named to the all-state tournament team along with Tena Loewen.
The Trojans’ defensive specialist in the back row was sophomore libero Danae Bina. During the season, Bina actually had to switch to padded shorts because she dove for balls so frequently. Her digs, especially against Flagor, were instrumental in scoring points for Hillsboro.
While the Trojans with on court contributions will get the glory, the effort of players like seniors Sammy Koons and Lindsey Brazil should not go overlooked. Both players were consummate forces of encouragement from the bench, and they were ready to come in and play at a moment’s notice all year.
The fact that the Trojans as a team were egoless was a factor in their coachability, allowing them to make adjustments in matches throughout the weekend. There are some constants for any Trojan volleyball team: they will limit their mistakes, play hard, and play smart.
That characteristic speaks to the final piece of the state championship puzzle. Arnold regularly puts those players in the right positions and prepares them for every contest. She measures the emotional feel of the game and uses her timeouts to effectively settle her players.
“She’s super encouraging when we need it and critical when we need it,” Reimer said. “It’s so hard, I can’t imagine (finding that balance).”
“We could not have a better coach,” Reimer added.
For now, most Trojans are enjoying a well-earned victory, but some of them could not help but look ahead to basketball season when nearly the entire group will be back to make another run at a state championship.
“It’s going to be a good year,” Serene said.