Sterling High School coach Sheri Bennett remembers the beginning of Black Bear volleyball because she played on the school's first team in 1972.
Thirty years later, Bennett is leading the Black Bears on a quest for the school's first-ever trip to the state volleyball tournament.
Sterling's early-season success provides evidence that the Black Bears will be competitive for a state volleyball berth. The Black Bears are 8-2 and 2-0 in the Central Kansas League after beating Rice County rival Lyons 25-17, 25-18 and Nickerson 25-16, 25-22 Tuesday night. Sterling placed fourth in the Central Kansas League Preseason Tournament and beat Pratt for the first time.
Sterling was paced by Dani Dowell and Chelsey Riffel with 13 kills apiece and Dani Dowell contributed 100 percent serving efficiency.
"We're always in a tough substate and Sterling has never won that championship match to get to state," said Bennett. "But we beat Pratt in pool play in the league tournament and that shows we can play with anybody."
Dani Dowell, Riffel and Aubree Nuest lead a hard-hitting frontline. Setters Lydia Lambert and Nuest coordinate the offense. Also contributing are Brooke Boeken and Andi Dowell. Riffel leads Sterling's attacking style of serving that puts pressure on the other team.
"We're playing really good volleyball and we're fortunate the girls have been well coached in the past," Bennett said. "Overall, were exceptionally skilled. We've got good athletes. They are good hitters who have worked hard in the summer to get better."
The Black Bears' advantage at the net was the difference in both matches Tuesday.
"We've worked hard on our blocking and that's developed into one of our strengths," she said. "The girls are showing good chemistry, They know their spots on the floor and are comfortable with who they are working with."
Sterling plays at Kingman Sept. 11.
Nickerson High split a triangular by beating Lyons, 9-25, 25-22, 25-22 after losing to Sterling, 25-16, 25-22 Tuesday. The Panthers travel to the Ellsworth Tournament Saturday.
Nickerson coach Deedra Woodbury saw her team continue to make steady progress after the team finished 1-4 in the Central Kansas League Tournament. The Panthers have posted both wins against Lyons.
Marissa Stewart has led the hitting game along with help from Morgan Erickson, Ashley Schweizer and Becca Hornback. Setter Payten Smith and defensive specialist Aubrea Beasley join Erin Nuss and Alison Evans in the lineup.
"We're showing some improvement and making progress," Woodbury said. "When we controlled the ball better with our defense and our passing, we played much better. We've had to work in a mix of players and a couple who didn't play volleyball last year. We're still learning how to work together."
Lyons played competitively behind the spiking of Aubrey Hollinger, Cierra Lange and Breanna Lutschg. Hollinger mixed hard spikes with pinpoint placements. Lutschg kept the pressure on Nickerson with several timely serving points. Lyons was a hard-luck loser after 22-22 ties in the second and third games.
Woodbury said the Panthers must rely on everyone to contribute because they don't feature a dominant hitter. Stewart helped the Panthers overcome a slow start against Lyons with a mix of hard winners and well-placed shots. Erickson and Schweizer also contributed timely winners for a 25-22 second game victory.
In the third game, Stewart and Schweizer hit winners for a 23-22 lead and Evans' perfect serve led to a 24-22 lead. The match point was hit out of bounds by Lyons.