Despite the fact its member schools range from Class C-1 to D-1, there is no debating that the Centennial Conference is the most talented and competitive volleyball conference in the state from top to bottom.
In the rally-scoring era (2004-present), the Centennial Conference has produced 17 state champions. Kearney Catholic joins the conference this year – a year earlier than originally planned – meaning the last nine and 21 of the last 23 Class C-1 champions have come from the Centennial Conference. It looks as though 2017 will another banner year for the conference, and here is a look at how teams stack-up.
In a deviation from other conference preview stories, let’s go ahead and rank all the teams in my predicted order of finish since each of them is a legitimate contender for a conference – and state – championship.
Grand Island Central Catholic
After losing in an epic five-set thriller to eventual state runner-up Malcolm in substate a year ago, Grand Island Central Catholic has been playing this summer like a team on a mission.
Megan Woods, a 5-foot-10 OH and Omaha commit, is an absolute full-rotation beast for the Crusaders and figures to establish herself as one of the premier players in the state this season. Sophomore 5-9 setter Katie Maser is the real deal and had nearly 900 assists in 2016. Another sophomore, Kate McFarland returns after a 100-kill freshman year.
The real wild card for the Crusaders is the status of 6-foot junior MH Kamryn Willman. As a sophomore she was third on the team with 231 kills and led GICC with 55 total blocks. She has been battling a blood clot issue that surfaced this summer and there is no set timetable for her return at this point. If the Crusaders get Willman back healthy, not only will they be one of the elite teams in Class C-1 but a legitimate top-10 team in the state.
Bishop Neumann is the defending Centennial Conference champions and went 9-1 against conference foes a year ago during a 29-4 season. Unfortunately for the Cavaliers, that one loss was to eventual state champion Omaha Concordia in the Class C-1 semifinals.
There is a lot to like about the 2017 Cavaliers, starting with dominating 6-foot junior OH Kelsie Cada. She finished last year with more than 350 kills, including 24 in a regular-season showdown against Malcolm. Setters Jessina Rada and Alyssa Rezac both return, as does 6-foot sophomore MH Lindsey Thiele, although she has been hampered by some injuries this summer.
Replacing graduated libero Maggie Dailey will be a top priority for the Cavaliers, but if they can find a solid replacement and if Thiele is able to play a majority of the season, Bishop Neumann will once again be a force to reckon with.
How does a team go 6-7 against conference opponents during an 18-17 campaign in 2016 and suddenly become one of the teams to beat the following year? Well, in the case of Lincoln Lutheran, you return three of your four top attackers from last year, an all-state setter and add to that the transfer of one of the state’s best OH and as well as one of the best liberos.
The Warriors were already looking at having a solid 2017 with the return of setter Hope Leimbach as well as attackers Kayla Ernstmeyer and Josie Puelz and libero Rebecca Ziems. Then came the decisions over the summer by former Beatrice OH Marriah Buss and former Lincoln North Star libero Erin Williams to transfer to Lincoln Lutheran.
The addition of Buss, a sure-fire Division I recruit who set the Class B single-match record for kills last year as a freshman against Ralston, gives Lutheran one of the most dominant players in the state. Williams should team with Ziems to give the Warriors one of the best back rows as well.
There is a saying that tradition never graduates. Well, that’s about the only thing that didn’t graduate from Kearney Catholic last year. The Stars are still in the midst of one of the all-time greatest runs in state volleyball history, having won four straight Class C-1 titles from 2012-2015 to go with runner-up finishes in 2010 and 2011, a third-place finish in 2009 and a fourth-place finish a year ago.
Gone are 92% of the team’s kills, 62% of its digs and 47% of its assists. Junior setter Olivia Micek returns after putting up more than 500 assists a year ago and her 45 kills is actually the most among all returning players. Emma Ryan, a 6-foot senior, and Ashlynn Schmaderer each saw lot of playing time last year and will be heavily relied upon this year as coach Kris Conner looks to reload for the Stars.
It was a magical run a year ago for Mustangs as they went 27-5 and won the Class C-1 state championship – the first-ever state title for the school in any sport. While the loss of all-stater Averey Yaksich and her 423 kills from a year ago will be hard to replace, the biggest challenge will be replacing the superlative defense from Victoria Jones, Ava Curtiss and Jenna Spellerberg that really fueled their run to the title.
Junior Taylor Pribyl, a Jacksonville State recruit, is back after a 281-kill year in 2016 and junior Omaha recruit Sami Clarkson is one of the top setters in the state. After those two and Haley Alharithy, though, the Mustangs will be counting on a lot of new faces.
Hastings St. Cecilia
You know you’re in a tough conference when you’re picked to finish fifth but you’re also considered a strong contender for a state title. Such is the case with Class C-2 Hastings St. Cecilia. Of course, playing in a tough conference has paid dividends for the Hawkettes as they have played on the final Saturday of the season each of the past six years. In those six years, Hastings St. Cecilia has won a pair of Class C-2 titles, finished third three times and fourth once.
That fourth-place finish came last year, and although St. Cecilia must replace all-state MH Lucy Skoch, look for the Hawkettes to simply reload as usual. Sophomore 6-foot OH Tori Thomas is set to become the next great player out of St. Cecilia and fellow sophomore setter Makenna Asher is equally big-time.
Sue Wewel returns to the bench for the Lady Knights for her third tour of duty as head coach and it wouldn’t be a surprise if she is able to guide a talented group of returning players to the Class C-2 school’s first state tournament since 2007.
Lexie Langley, a 6-foot junior, is the kind of strong full-rotation force all great teams need and she returns after registering 323 kills a year ago. Junior Allison Dieckmann emerged last year as a solid setter for the Lady Knights and junior Haley Kempf gives Bergan a 1-2 attacking punch with Langley. Senior Meghan Dahlhauser is back at libero and is right there with Williams from Lincoln Lutheran as best in the conference.
The Shamrocks saw an eight-year streak of reaching the state tournament snapped during a 14-12 season in 2016 but Scotus has the pieces back to make a legitimate run at starting a new streak this season.
Junior Bailey Lehr is the top returning attacker for the Shamrocks after totaling 176 kills last season and also back are senior attackers Shania Borchers and Elley Beaver. Senior setter Maggie Feehan also returns after averaging 9.1 assists per set in 2016.
The graduations of all-state setter Ashlyn Power and libero Mollie Shepard will be very hard for the Crusaders to replace from last year’s team that went 23-6 and reached the substate round of the playoffs.
Fortunately, Sioux Fall recruit Avery Dolliver returns after a team-leading 338 kills last year and the Crusaders also have Taytem Coleman, Abby Stutz and Sierra Beukelman back at the net and sophomore setter Barrett Power had 267 assists a year ago.
David City Aquinas
The Monarchs will have their work cut out for them to improve on last year’s mark of 11-15 with the graduation of four key seniors.
Senior libero Regan Pelan returns as do junior middles Micaiah Vrbka and Kloe Ruth for Aquinas.