KEARNEY – A five-set loss to Elkhorn in the first round of the 2014 Class B State Tournament last November snapped a seven-year streak in which Grand Island Northwest had placed in the top three at state.
It may only be July, but the 2015 Grand Island Northwest squad looks like it’s ready to start a new streak this season.
Playing the best overall defense of all 18 teams in the division over the last two days, Northwest was able to separate itself from the pack and take home the team title in the Class A/B/C1 division with a set record of 13-5 against the other 9 teams in the 10-team championship pool.
Northwest entered its final match of the tournament at 12-4 and faced 10-6 Ord. Had Ord swept the Lady Viqueens, it would have been the team champion, but Northwest pulled out a gutty 27-25 win in the first set to seal the championship. Ord answered by winning the second set by an identical 27-25 score. Ord, Gretna and North Platte each finished two games behind Northwest with a record of 11-7 while Omaha Concordia was fifth with a 10-8 mark.
Here are the final standings followed by notes from the past two days of competition in this division:
Grand Island Northwest 13-5
North Platte 11-7
Omaha Concordia 10-8
Kearney Catholic 9-9
Columbus Lakeview 6-12
St. Paul 11-3
Millard South 7-7
Kearney Catholic Gold 2-12
Grand Island Northwest has played well all summer in competitive team camps and has established itself as one of the premier teams in Class B and probably one of the best dozen teams in the whole state regardless of class. When you walk away from matching a Northwest match, you leave really impressed with their defense, desire, balance and you know you’ve watched one of the best teams in the state. It’s weird, but the one thing you walk away thinking is that they don’t really have a bonafide superstar. The other four teams to finish in the top five at the camp all have a player(s) that you can point to as a being a dominating force. It’s just not the case with Northwest, but frankly, that’s what makes them so dangerous at this point.
The Lady Viqueens simply don’t have a glaring weakness and all six players they have on the court at any given time are extremely good. Maybe someone steps up this year for them and becomes that superstar, but the fact that they are so balanced and so good across the board puts them in great shape to have an outstanding season. If a player gets hurt, they will have the depth to recover. Northwest won’t have an off night just because its best player struggles because of its balance. Northwest is simply going to be a very, very dangerous team this year.
Here is the roster Northwest brought to Kearney: seniors Kayla Bachle, Allie Carlini, Bailey Parr and Taylor Hovie; juniors Kylie Broich, Kelsey Placke and Sierra Holliday; sophomores Taryn Mayfield, Sydney Simmons and Taylor Hageman.
Gretna brought a lot of kids to Kearney (12) and used them all quite a bit. Math was never my best subject, but I bet whatever the maximum mathematical possibilities of lineups to use with that many players was equal to the number of different line-ups coach Mike Brandon used. As one coach here said, “the summer is when you find out what doesn’t work,” and clearly Gretna was trying to find that out the last two days. The Dragons’ 6-foot-1 junior middle Mallory Yost looks more athletic and strong and have some really nice moments. Wyoming recruit Halie McArdle was very McArdle-ish, consistently sending balls screaming across the net. Athletic 5-foot-10 freshman outside Kamryn Schuler held her own when she was on the court.
It’s impressive that Gretna was able to go 11-7 while playing with its line-up so much, but it was equally impressive that North Platte was able to walk away with an 11-7 mark as well. It didn’t take long yesterday for everyone in the gym to realize senior middle Olivia Nicholson wasn’t completely healthy for the Bulldogs. The Colorado State recruit has some shoulder tendonitis and did not take a swing the entire camp. Well, at least not with her right arm. There were times she tried attacking with her left hand and that was fun to watch but not effective. So, Nicholson tipped everything and teams were quick to realize it, but she still made a huge impact defensively. UN-Kearney recruits Allison Kuenle and Josie Cox looked as good these two days as I think they have all summer. Kuenle hits the ball as hard as anyone and is explosive and Cox – a transfer from Maxwell – looks like she is getting more and more comfortable in the North Platte system and playing against higher-level competition. Alex Neff is a very underrated setter for the Bulldogs and she played well, and the same can be said for libero Hayley Schanou and front-row players Sami Mauch and Morgan Raska.
Ord continues to be one of the most impressive teams of the summer despite being Class C-1. Ord certainly has given me a lot to think about as I start putting together are pre-season rankings, considering its showing these last two days again fellow Class C-1 powers Omaha Concordia (25-19, 25-21) and Kearney Catholic (24-26, 25-16). I feel really good in saying that setter Morgan Alexander has moved to the top of the list when it comes to senior setters in the state. Her play generated more, “Oh my gosh,” reactions from people in the stands than any other player. The match Ord played against Grand Island Northwest (a split) was fast-paced, high-energy and featured some of the best defense you’ll see from teams at this point in the season. Much like Northwest, Ord is incredibly balanced and plays phenomenal defense. I have no idea yet high high it will start the year ranked in Class C-1, but I feel safe in saying Ord will be in the top 20 of all teams regardless of class when the Nebraska Top 25 is released.
The talk about Omaha Concordia the last two days by other coaches is about how much the Mustangs’ individual players have all improved and how that has helped them stay at a high level even with the graduation of Gatorade Player of the Year Megan Wickey. Junior outside hitter Averey Yaksich will definitely be that dominating presence for Concordia, but what the Mustangs are going to need is the emergence of a consistent secondary threat. Coach Kiley Hansen brought 13 players with her to Kearney and will obviously give several people a chance to step-up and be that compliment to Yaksich. That person will need to step forward soon as Concordia opens the season at Columbus Scotus in what will be a clash of two of the top ranked teams in Class C-1.
Both Kearney Catholic and Elkhorn battled through some inconsistencies the last two days to finish at 9-9. Both teams were a little less than 100% as well. Kearney Catholic was without junior outside hitter Kylie Thiele due to illness while Elkhorn is still without Claire Mountjoy, who was injured at the UNO team camp a couple weeks ago. Elkhorn’s Dani Carlson is an incredibly underrated player for Elkhorn and can do just about anything for the Antlers and sophomore outside hitter Lauren Edet will likely have a huge break-out season for Elkhorn this year.Maddie Squires looked really good as a setter for Kearney Catholic these two days and sister Anna showed some good explosiveness and power as a 5-foot-11 middle.
The strength of Class C-1 showed itself not just in Ord, Kearney Catholic and Omaha Concordia, but also in the fact that Columbus Lakeview finished eighth with a record of 6-12 against high-level competition. Lakeview’s 6-foot seniors Kayla Schrunk and Payton Rosendahl both looked very good in this camp.
Aurora faces the challenge of having to replace All-Nebraska setter Allison Penner, but as the two days went on, the Huskies seemed to play better and more smoothly behind junior Keri Oswald – she seemed to get more comfortable setting as the camp went along. Of course, South Dakota recruit Kiley Hixson was outstanding both days and it looks like Aurora will have a few options to find a good compliment at the net with her.
I’m guilty of thinking that this was probably going to be a rough year for Norris as it tries to replace so many key pieces from it’s back-to-back Class B championship teams. The Titans showed these two days that while it might be a “growth” season, it will definitely not be as rough as I initially thought. Senior 6-foot middle Ally Catt had some great matches and Jordyn Clauss, formerly a libero, looks pretty good as a setter for the Titans. Overall, the team looked pretty good and Norris does have five players listed at 5-foot-10 or taller. It might be a little bumpy in the Eastern Midlands Conference for a young team this year, but the Titans look like the type of team that will look much different come late October.
Matt Koehn-Fairbanks does a great coach coaching at St. Paul and his team was one of the scrappiest in the division, so it’s no surprise it wound up winning the Silver division. I was especially impressed with the play and athleticism of of 5-foot-8 junior outside Lesley Fox and junior setter Claira Thede.
You may remember Stanton as the Class C-1 team from a year ago that went something like 31-2 and did not make it to state after losing to Columbus Scotus in the district final. The team Stanton brought to Kearney was similar to St. Paul in how hard it competed and fought. Stanton also has the most interesting roster in that it has six seniors, just one junior and three freshmen. It’s like the city went two years without having any girls born or something. It’s also a roster that does not have a single player at 5-foot-10 or taller.
Whatever happened in Stanton must have happened in Seward as well, because it brought five seniors, a sophomore and three freshmen.
Of all the teams at the Top 10 Camp – regardless of division – the one with the most freshmen here is Millard South, which brought four. Paxton Throne, a 5-foot-11 senior, is one of Class A’s top senior setters and 6-foot junior Madi Stearns is one of the state’s best players – period. But, the Patriots lost a lot of key pieces from their state-tournament team a year ago and first-year coach Jaisa Poppleton is taking a look at a lot of players for those roles. Of the freshmen Millard South brought, 5-foot-9 setter Jaisee Stinson looks the most poised to make an immediate impact at the Class A level.