State volleyball - Wallace County, Logan in Division II tourney
By CONOR NICHOLL
Wallace County High School has consistently delivered a strong volleyball program under coach Paulette Unruh. In her second stint with the Wildcats, Unruh has posted 33-6, 18-13, 23-10 and 26-8 records.
However, the Wildcats had trouble with state powers Weskan and Wheatland-Grinnell and fell short of a Class 1A Division II state berth. This summer, though, coach Larry O'Connor worked with the volleyball team in the weight room. The girls had a high attendance and showed marked improvement.
"He deserves a lot of credit," Unruh said.
Wallace County produced an eight-win difference to 34-4, finished 2-0 against Weskan and Wheatland-Grinnell and won the early-season Gove County Classic.
Last week, Wallace County navigated through a sub-state with four ranked teams, defeated Wheatland-Grinnell 24-26, 25-23, 25-15 in the semifinals and beat Rexford-Golden Plains 25-21, 25-22 in the championship.
Wallace County had lost five in a row to Weskan and Wheatland-Grinnell each before this season. Weskan lost in the first round of sub-state to Triplains-Brewster when all-state senior Kelsey Hale played with an injured ankle.
"That was the key," Unruh said. "If they hadn't gotten in the weight room, it might have been a different story. They came in physically more fit."
Wallace County enters the Class 1A Division II state tournament as the No. 2 seed. The Wildcats are in Pool II with third-seeded Argonia (34-5), No. 6 Logan (24-12) and No. 7 Attica (21-16). Start time is 3:30 p.m. at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
"I am pretty confident about it," Unruh said. "I felt like if we could beat the teams that were ranked in the top-10 in our sub-state, then we could beat anybody there."
This year marks the fifth time Wallace County has qualified for the state tournament in school annals. Unruh coached the team for nine years, then took five years off before she came back five years ago. The Wildcats were third in 2000 and fourth the next season. No area team has won a state title since Weskan in 1A in 1995.
"We can produce some pretty good volleyball teams out here, and I have been to state before," Unruh said. "Yeah, there is some pressure, not everybody is going to be better and bigger than you are, and you get there, and they are just high school girls, and whoever wants to compete that day. I really think that if we play our best, I really think that we have got a shot at it."
Helped by the summer work, Wallace County has especially improved offensively. The team has 776 kills, just 174 errors and a .428 hitting percentage.
"We don't have to work so much on the timing, because they have been able to jump higher," Unruh said. "When their timing is off is when they are not jumping very high. They didn't realize, I don't think until this year, that timing is not a very big deal when you jump high. That's really helped our hitting."
Last season, Wallace County went 2-3 at the Gove County Classic. This season, the Wildcats finished 4-1 at the Sept. 14 tournament, including straight set wins against Wheatland-Grinnell and Weskan.
"Mentally, I think our girls were maybe doubting themselves because they were bigger schools there," Unruh said. "They realized that they could do it."
Junior middle hitter Rachael Kuhlman has 507 kills (4.2 per set) and a .585 hitting percentage. She leads the team with 4.4 blocks and stands second with 3.8 assists.
Last season, the Wildcats hit .210 with 628 kills and 273 errors. Kuhlman had 298 kills and hit .401.
Senior Jordan Compton has played well at middle/outside hitter, senior Ally Dewees is the starting libero and sophomore Jaiden Childers has played in the back row. Freshman Sierra Seader and junior Rylea Rains have played on the outside, freshman Hannah Pletcher has improved as a hitter and freshman Cassidy Kreigh is the starting setter.
"She thinks," Unruh said of Kuhlman. "She is smart about the game. She knows the game really well, and she gives 100 percent 100 percent of the time. She'll never let a ball drop that she thought she could have had."
Logan qualifies for state
Veteran Trojan coach Robin Van Laeys knew Logan had a talented group this season. Logan had two seniors in Michaela Girard and Cynthia Bressler, a strong junior class and plenty of height.
"We knew that this was our year," Van Laeys said.
Logan has four players at least 5-foot-10: Bressler, junior Kodi Van Laeys, sophomore Christen Greving and junior Kadee Braun. The height and Girard's outstanding jump serve has helped a team that has hit a collective .108. Logan finished fourth two years ago with Caley Greving, Christen's older sister.
"It's been huge," Coach Van Laeys said. "We are pretty big, and it helps us. When we are big at the net, we play well."
Girard has 71 aces and 220 serving points, each the team's best. Girard's serve is so strong Logan has had to change its approach.
"Sometimes it is almost a detriment to us, because kids can't handle it and it comes back," Coach Van Laeys said. "We have had to adjust how we are on the floor when she is serving, because she would serve a lot of balls that would be immediately returned."
Blocking-wise, Greving paces the team with 1.9 per set, while Braun has 1.8 and Bressler 1.6. Van Laeys leads with 2.7 kills and a .198 hitting percentage. Logan has played 18 three-set matches, including a sub-state semifinal and championship win. Logan went 11-7 in three-set matches this year.
"We are pretty good at doing that, because we have done it all season," Girard said of the comebacks.