Is this the year that someone from the Heartland Athletic Conference breaks through and wins the first state title in almost 20 years? That’s a common question to hear around Lincoln, where six of the eight Heartland members reside. Despite…
Is this the year that someone from the Heartland Athletic Conference breaks through and wins the first state title in almost 20 years? That’s a common question to hear around Lincoln, where six of the eight Heartland members reside.
Despite many outstanding teams over the years, the Heartland Conference has watched as the Metro Conference has taken home every Class A state title since Lincoln Northeast won it all in 1998. In fact, the Heartland Conference hasn’t put anyone in the Class A championship match since Grand Island made it to the finals in consecutive years (2006 and 2007). The Islanders nearly won the title in 2007, falling in heart-breaking fashion (19-17 in the fifth set) to Papillion-LaVista.
Perhaps the best chance the Heartland Conference has had since 2007 came in 2014 when Lincoln Southeast took Omaha Marian to a fifth set in the semifinals and led in the fifth set before a portion of the playing surface at Pinnacle Bank Arena came undone – leading to a lengthy delay at a pivotal time in the match. Marian came back to win that fifth set 19-17 on its way to a state title that year.
So, is there anyone that can come out of the Heartland Conference this year and snap the Metro Conference’s grip on Class A? Let’s take a look. Remember, newly accepted conference members Kearney, Lincoln Pius X and Norfolk don’t begin official conference play until the 2018-2019 school year.
The Silver Hawks return practically everyone from last year’s team that went 22-12 and reached the state tournament. Southwest was one of the hottest teams in the state at the end of the year, winning nine straight matches (including the conference tournament championship) before falling in the district final and (after getting the wild card) in the first round of state.
Rachel Walker, a Wayne State recruit, returns after nearly 300 kills and more than 500 assists a year ago, as does fellow setter Joycin Stonacek. All-state caliber setter Katie Siefkes returns while Jaden Ferguson (337), Hannah Kelle (201), Caitilin Dirks (131) and Paige Silverberg (128) all come back after recording triple-digit kills in 2016.
Keep an eye on Grand Island this year. It never takes much talent for a Bill Root coached team to be dangerous, but the Islanders have legit talent coming into 2017.
Alexa Blasé, an Omaha recruit, might not have the name recognition other Class A players have, but she’s a high riser with a loose arm that can be tough to stop. Sydney Wald, Britni Aguilar and Sam Armstrong each had more than 100 kills a year ago for the Islanders and Katie Ellis returns after splitting time at setter a year ago. Grand Island’s biggest hole to fill will be with the loss of all-state libero Kaylee Taylor, but we have a hunch the Islanders will be prepared defensively when the season opens up.
Southeast has played extremely well this summer and when you have an absolute beast at the net – which the Knights do in UMKC recruit Melanie Brekca – you’re always going to be tough to beat.
Brecka – at 6-foot – is not the tallest of middles in the state but you won’t find any more athletic and she might be the most devastating middle on the slide in the state. Cassidy Plooster has come over from Lincoln Pius X and was setting extremely well for the Knights this summer and Madison Renn will anchor the defense. Southeast also will have to count on several people to step-up after limited roles last year, but 6-foot-2 junior Lexi Long looks like she has made a lot of progress and could be ready to be a significant piece of the puzzle for the Knights.
Cindy Kostek takes over a Fremont program that hasn’t reached state since 1983 and won just seven matches last year. Elizabeth Greunke is the only Tiger back with more than 100 kills a year ago but Fremont does return the setting duo of Taylor Pemberton and Mackenzie Doescher.
The Spartans should be a much-improved team over last year’s squad that went 8-25. Setter/right side Alex Lemke is back after more than 200 kills and 300 assists a year ago and 6-foot-2 Atley Carey could be primed for a breakout season.
Hannah Burianek returns as a dual threat at the net and as a setter for the Links while attacker Alyssa Childers and setter Mackenzie Pierson are back this year as well.
The good news for the Rockets is that there is plenty of talented players to build around from last year’s 17-20 team. The bad news is that all-state setter Emma Thommsen isn’t one of them.
Makenna Kirk is back after a 399-kill season last year as is Camden Blowers, Logan Gronewold and Hannah Ochsner. If the Rockets can get comfortable with a new setter quickly, they have the potential to finish in the top half of the conference.
Lincoln North Star
The cupboard is pretty bare at Lincoln North Star this year as the Gators lost 71% of their kills from a year ago as well as its starting setter and libero. At 5-foot-7, Andrea Gardner is the top returning attacker for North Star after finishing with 187 kills a year ago. Senior Ireland Currey also returns after having 94 kills in 2016.