Smoky Valley avenges early loss to Nickerson

Published: Aug. 28, 2021 at 10:42 PM CDT
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LYONS, Kan. (Catch it Kansas) - The Central Kansas League volleyball teams did okay for themselves in 2020. Smoky Valley made it all the way to the Class 3A state championship game. Hillsboro finished fourth in Class 2A. Nickerson made a disappointing exit in the first round of substate.

Those three schools and the rest of the CKL bunch were in action Saturday in Lyons for the annual preseason tournament that was skipped last year due to Covid-19 concerns. The cream has already risen to the top. Smoky Valley avenged an earlier loss in the day to beat Nickerson for the title. Hillsboro needed three sets to get by Lyons in the third-place match.

In the final round of pool play, Nickerson made relatively easy work of Smoky Valley in a 25-22, 25-15 match. Both sides advanced out of the semifinals in just two sets before the Lady Vikings turned the tide to take the preseason title 25-17, 25-22.

“I think we set up the defense a little differently in the second game because we knew they were going to feed Ava Jones for the most part,” said Smoky Valley coach Sharlene Ramsey. “We made some defensive shifts to try and offset that.”

Early on in the finals it was poor service that tried to doom the Vikings. Three serves into the net gave Nickerson a 7-5 edge. A tip from the 6-foot-2 Jones pushed the gap to three but Smoky eventually leveled the score at 11.

It was mostly Vikings after that. Senior Laini Haigh come off the bench to provide a big service, capped by a kill from senior Madi Tolle. That put the Lady Vikes ahead 17-14.

“Her role is to come in and serve,” Ramsey said. “She came in and handled that role extremely well. She’s a senior and she plays really level-headed. We knew we could count on her to come in and take that role for us.”

The Panthers fought back one more time behind an ace from junior Josie McLean for an 18-17 score, but Smoky finished strong, including a giant stuff from reigning 3A Player of the Year Abby Rose late in the first set.

“I think it just came down to fatigue,” said Nickerson’s first-year coach Payton Scheer. “It was a long day. Smoky Valley is a great team and they’re extremely well-coached. They have a lot of great volleyball players. I think we just ran out of gas.”

The Vikings scored the first five points of set two until the Panthers eventually evened things out at seven and took an 8-7 lead on a stuff from Jones. Kills from Jones and sophomore Avery Hambrick kept the gap at 10-9.

Smoky eventually tied the game at 15 and never trailed again. A Tolle hit pushed the lead to 19-16, and freshman Katja Blanchat saved off a comeback attempt with a big block for a 22-20 score.

Duncan appeared to have a game-winner but no deflection was called. Just a couple points later Tolle was able to push the ball toward the back corner past a diving Lady Panther defender to secure the set, match, and tournament.

The tournament featured many of the state’s best. Smoky Valley won despite losing two all-state players, though the senior Rose is a strong contender to repeat as 3A Player of the Year.

“We’re going to feed her a lot,” said Ramsey. “Any team that scouts us knows that’s where we’re going to go a lot. But we have some other weapons. Madi Tolle in the middle was huge for us. She sets a really good block. Hope Duncan and some other girls really played the net well.”

Jones returns as a Class 4A all-state honorable mention and McLean was a first-team all-leaguer in 2020. Senior Kieryn Ontjes helped the team get past Lyons in the semifinals. Hillsboro loses its unanimous first-team all-league and all-stater in Jessica Saunders, but gets back all-state honorable mention Sammie Saunders and all-league junior Kori Arnold.

“The CKL is a battle,” Ramsey said. “You have a lot of teams with a lot of rich volleyball history. It’s a pretty good sign. Next week we go to Abilene and face them, TMP, and Concordia and that will not be easy. At the Southeast tournament we’ll see Circle and Beloit, and that won’t be easy. It’s go time.”

Nickerson takes its first lump of the season but against a team it has already done well against. The level of quality made it easy to forget that was just day one of the volleyball season – one long day in a hot gymnasium.

“It’s still the first day of the season,” Scheer said. “We learned a lot about ourselves today. Obviously we’re disappointed. We wanted to go out with first place. But at the end of the day, I can’t complain about second place, especially when it’s against a good team. I just kept telling the girls there’s a lot of season left and a lot of ways to improve.”

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