As the action played out on the far court late Friday night, Zoe Schultz stood on the track surrounding the courts at Gross Memorial Coliseum.
After a long day for the senior from Grainfield-Wheatland/Grinnell, it was time to relax for a few hours.
She and the rest of the Thunderhawks had earned it, going 3-0 on the first day of the Class 1A Division II state volleyball tournament in Hays.
“It feels good, and it feels right,” Schultz said.
Indeed it did, as Wheatland/Grinnell found itself back into the semifinal round of the season finale.
And the hardest part of the day came in the team’s final match against Otis-Bison, which would determine who was the top seed from the pool and who was the runner-up.
“We knew Otis would be the best we saw today,” Schultz said. “It was kind of challenging.”
The Cougars (30-10) were 2-0 entering the final match as well, equaling the Thunderhawks output through the first two matches.
And Otis-Bison took control early, building a 20-14 lead and seizing momentum.
But the Thunderhawks (40-3), the defending state runner-up, weren’t going to go quietly. Instead, the team rallied.
Schultz was a big part of it, knotting the game at 21-all with back-to-back service aces. With the score tied at 22, junior Mikayla Heier scored on a kill, followed by a block by senior Shayla Wood.
The Cougars pulled within 24-23 on a net foul before Wood ended the comeback with a kill down the line for a 25-23 win.
“We just came out a little bit low energy, but I was pleased with the way they picked it up,” said Wheatland/Grinnell coach Shannon Foster. “I wanted them to at least get some energy to at least go into the second set with if we couldn’t come back. I was really impressed with how they responded.”
With the Cougars leading 2-0 early in the second set, the Thunderhawks got rolling again against the team that was third a year ago.
Slowly distancing themselves throughout the game, Wood ended the perfect day with another kill for a 25-14 win.
“We definitely had some sore memories coming in,” Schultz said about finishing second to Axtell last year. “But knowing that this year that everyone thought we would rebuild … we wanted to be back here, and we worked hard to get back here. We’re just going to lay it on the line for tomorrow.”
Foster’s team won its first two matches of the day easily, beating Fowler 25-16, 25-23 and South Barber, 25-18, 25-20.
“We do have a tendency to just play around and at the last minute maybe turn it on,” Foster said. “But we’ve played a lot of good teams this year that I think have gotten us ready for this moment.”
Otis-Bison disposed of the same two teams in pool play, beating South Barber 25-11, 27-29, 25-16 before cruising by Fowler, 25-22, 25-12.
The win by the Thunderhawks against Otis-Bison put them in Saturday’s 2 p.m. semifinal against Northern Valley (30-9). The Cougars were set to face Beloit-St. John’s/Tipton (32-10) in the other semifinal.
Northern Valley was the cream of the crop in the other pool until the final match against St. John’s/Tipton.
The Huskies needed to beat the Blujays to earn the No. 1 seed, which would have forced a three-way tie for second.
But the Blujays suprised the Huskies with a 25-19, 25-22 setback, giving the Huskies the No. 2 seed from the pool and St. John’s/Tipton the top spot.
“I am relieved,” said Northern Valley coach Kirsten Baird. “We wanted to win that one, but we can work our way back up.”
Northern Valley started the day with a 25-15, 20-25, 25-21 win against Axtell, the defending state champs. The Huskies then beat Waverly, 25-12, 25-20.
“It was big because when we won our sub-state, our girls were so tense,” Baird said about the win to start the day. “That’s the only way to describe it is they were so tense. I told them, ‘Guys, we’re here, and we’re going to enjoy it and have fun.’ And they did and stepped up and played relaxed. That was great volleyball early.”
It would have been easy for the Huskies to be nervous. After all, they were making their first trip to state in at least the last 24 years, according to Baird.
But junior Paige Baird powered Northern Valley all day long, securing crucial points with thunderous kills to put the Huskies in position to win the pool.
After Axtell beat Waverly, it guaranteed a spot in the semifinals for Northern Valley.
“We were rooting for Axtell, obviously, and I think that got into their heads that they were safe,” the coach said. “They just didn’t have that competitive edge.”
The loss to the Blujays set up a rematch with the Thunderhawks in the semifinals. The two teams split a pair of matches earlier this season.
“We’re 1-1 against Northern Valley, and that’s always a pretty heated match,” Foster said. “They are league rivals. … It should be pretty entertaining — for everyone but the coaches.”