WICHITA, Kan. -

May 18 was a rollercoaster for Kapaun volleyball head coach Terri Hessman. Watching a group of seniors graduate comes with the territory. But this was no common variety group of seniors.

“It’s a bag of mixed emotions because you are so proud of them and they are so ready to move on now and be big college athletes and get to experience all that,” said Hessman. “But boy it is just heart-wrenching sometimes to watch them. And a few of those girls I had for four years on my court so I will miss them a lot.”

Nine of the 11 varsity roster spots at Kapaun last fall were filled with seniors. Of those seniors, six signed to play college volleyball, four of those six going to Division I schools. The group walking across the stage picking up diplomas signified the end of a remarkable era of Crusader athletics. As much as the occasion was a celebration of accomplishment, it was a celebration for the rest of the City League for the end of what was a stranglehold on Wichita volleyball.

As one era ends, the door is open for another group to pick up the torch in a nearly full-scale line change on the varsity roster. And the next generation has not been sitting idly by on the junior varsity team.

“I am extremely thrilled,” said junior setter Ashley Lesser about the opportunity. “But at the same time, last year we were able to step up and make our mark. I mean, they were an incredible class and they taught us so much. And through that example we are able to continue it. It’s not really just stepping back up. It is just continuing what they started.”

Sophomore outside hitter Katie Torline isn’t scared of the lofty bar either.

“I think that this year, we all really work really well together and we just get along,” said Torline. “So I think that if we work as hard as we have been working, we can get there and we can do things that last year’s class did.”

Junior outside hitter Makenna Johnson will have a unique perspective coming into the fall season. Along with Olivia Tolberd, Johnson is one of only two returning varsity players from last year’s team. She was only a sophomore in the presence of last year’s class, but she has seen the level of hard work it takes to have success. She knows what it takes to play winning volleyball, and she sees the potential in this year’s group.

“I feel like we have a really good work ethic going into this year,” said Johnson. “We all have a really good team chemistry so I feel like if we just keep working as hard as we are working and keep practicing, I think we can get there.”

Last season, Kapaun’s seniors led the way to a third-place finish at state, showcasing a blend of talent and experience almost every other team in the state would envy. The standard of excellence on the court was as visibly noticeable as it is tough to reach.

What the sports fan had to dig a little deeper to see was the level of academic success as well. Sending Sydney Kuhn to Notre Dame is the glaring example of the kind of student-athletes the program is producing. For the last four years the Crusaders have won academic awards to go with the trophies accumulated through wins on the court. It is all a part of the total package. Classroom success is every bit an ingredient to the tradition of excellence as match point tallies.

And the Kapaun volleyball players shy away from challenging classes as much as they shy away from opponents in the gym.

“A lot of us on the volleyball team do take very rigorous courses,” said Lesser. “And it is just learning how to give it all you have at practice, but when you get home realize, ‘Hey, school has to come before sports.’ And if you don’t have your grades you can’t be on the court. So it is basically paying attention in the classroom, getting enough rest, making sure you are ready for both your athletic and academic parts of the day.”

“Just the general work ethic, like if you are not getting something in volleyball you can come in after practice and work on it,” said Johnson. “If you are not getting something in school, just putting in that extra work just to make sure you understand it, and just making sure that you are doing your best in everything.”

Having played on the JV team last year, the next crop is ready for the challenge of playing varsity. They had the benefit of seeing the work ethic in practice, while putting the principles into play on the court as well. Having such a dynamic class in the same gym provided a constant reminder there was room for improvement. There was no room for settling for an average day’s work in close proximity to a collection of college bound stars.

“I think they also taught us to work really hard and we just want to strive to be at their level,” said Torline. “So we work really hard and we work really well together, so I think that is really good for us.”

At the same time, the group was not working hard to keep up with drills and having to keep the last chairs on the bench filled during games. JV provided opportunity.

“I think that is fine,” said Hessman. “They got a lot of great playing time in last year, a lot of court time staying on JV instead of moving up and sitting and watching. So they got a ton of experience, a ton of playing time. Now we know we just need to speed up their game. The JV level, though very talented and good, is a slower pace than we want to play in varsity. So that is probably our biggest challenge coming in is just picking up the pace of our game and keeping up.”

Losing almost the entire varsity team won’t put Kapaun on the top of a lot of picks to win the league. But that is not stopping the team from setting the same lofty goals. With hard work and the mental judo to turn lumps into positives, the Crusaders will be alright.

“Our City League is going to be really tough,” said Johnson. “There are some really good teams and so, through everything I think we will be able to learn from it and learn what we need to work on.”