Wheatland-Grinnell coach Shannon Foster knew the tradition-laden Thunderhawks faced multiple challenges after they took third place in Class 1A, Division II in 2017.
Wheatland-Grinnell graduated 95 percent of their assists, 76 percent of kills and 63 percent of digs. As well, 1A switched back from Division I and Division II to one classification starting this fall. W-G is annually one of the state’s smallest schools.
Then, Foster and her husband, Justin, had their fourth child, Emmitt, the day before practice started. Foster took her children to practice daily.
On Saturday, the Thunderhawks upset top-seeded Victoria, 25-23, 25-20, and won the Class 1A sub-state in front of a raucous crowd at Ransom-Western Plains High School.
“It’s definitely the coaches – and everyone always looks down on us,” senior Mikayla Heier said. “Because we lost a lot of players last year, but we’ve come back and we’re just stronger than ever, and everyone is committed.”
Victoria, the No. 2 overall seed at 29-6, was trying to reach state for the first time since 1991. W-G, the third seed, moved to 31-9. State is next week at Emporia State University.
“We never found our rhythm in that game,” third-year Victoria coach Sarah Nuss said. “That’s what killed us. There’s no doubt in my mind that we are the better team of the two. We just never played our game.”
The Thunderhawks were 116-18 in the previous three falls, including a championship in ’15 and a runner-up showing to Axtell in ’16.
Nuss believed W-G’s longtime success helped in sub-state. Victoria had just one senior in 2017 and returned more than 95 percent of its kills, blocks and aces from last fall’s 8-20 squad.
“Programs that are consistently going there (to state) know when they are stepping on the court what they are playing for,” Nuss said. “I think this group, had not ever been there, they stepped on the court knowing they wanted to go, but they didn’t know the excitement that comes along with it. … We never found a groove. We tried. We changed a couple of things up.”
Multiple players, including junior libero Jessi Shaw, cried in the postmatch celebration. Foster’s children are all eight or younger; several of them came up to their mother on the court after the match for a hug.
“We were going to have to have a lot of girls that didn’t have much experience at the beginning of the season to step up and do things that they’ve never had to do before,” Foster said. “And they’ve just impressed me all along the way.”
Foster missed the first practice because she was in the hospital, and then back in the gym. Emmitt has been through every practice and every match. Longtime W-G athletic director Terry Ostmeyer has supported the decision to have the children at practices and matches.
“They come to practice with us all the time,” she said. “It’s kind of a circus sometimes. We are all pretty tired. The house is a mess, but we are surviving.”
“We still have fun with it,” Heier added. “We still bring all the energy she needs, and we just enjoy having the kids around, because they are like our little brothers.”
Foster’s mom meets her at the school and follows the bus with Emmitt. Foster feeds him once the bus arrives, and then feeds him in between matches. Justin works in the family-owned business as a mechanic.
“He puts in a lot of hours,” Foster said. “He makes a lot of sacrifices during the season, so I can do this. Along with his mom – she has helped watch the other three boys on game days, so that we can make this all work. So it definitely takes a village to make it work, and I am very blessed.”
In the semifinals, Victoria dispatched Almena-Northern Valley, 2-0. NV was the defending 1A, Division II state champions and featured one of the state’s best players in Paige Baird, Kansas’ all-time leader in career kills. Then, the Thunderhawks needed three sets to hold off St. Francis and had little rest between matches.
In the first matchup between the schools in at least nine years, W-G took advantage of some Victoria first-set errors for a 6-0 run and a 10-7 lead. The Thunderhawks never relinquished the lead.
“We are not as big on the front line as we have been in the past, so we have really been trying to get it done with pass, serve and defense,” Foster said. “And I think that’s what they proved today that we can really pass and serve and play defense, because Victoria is a great team. They have a lot of good front line hitters, so I knew that we would have to really buckle down and play hard defense.”
In the second set, the Knights led 13-7 before Heier had a stretch of five kills and two aces for an 18-17 Grainfield advantage.
“Without her, we don’t get it done,” Foster said.
Many of Heier’s and junior Jordyn Vincent’s kills came through the middle. Vincent delivered two kills to give W-G a 22-20 lead.
“Blockers needed to seal the net better, and then the back row needed to be on their toes ready to move if they knew the blockers weren’t sealing,” Nuss said.
After the final point, Foster hugged assistant coach Tristan Bixenman, a former W-G standout volleyball player, and brought her had to her mouth to punctuate the emotional season.
“I just couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve done,” Foster said.
Otis-Bison qualifies for state for third straight season
Otis-Bison and Kensington-Thunder Ridge featured two of the state’s top hitters with Cougar junior Maddie Wiltse and TR senior Elizabeth Hardacre. Both players, at least 6-foot tall, achieved all-state status last season and have posted big years again.
However, in the first set, Wiltse hit .000 with two kills and two errors on six attempts. Hardacre tallied three kills and no errors.
Still, Otis-Bison won 25-16 behind its supporting cast, great serving and Thunder Ridge receiving miscues.
In the second set, Wiltse and Hardacre each had five kills with one error but O-B continued to have a strong all-around effort and serving. Thunder Ridge saved three match points. The Cougars prevailed 27-25 in the second 1A sub-state at Ransom-Western Plains.
“It’s just a lot of practice,” junior Cora Anderson said. “That was one of our goals this year was no missed serves, and our coach’s thing is five serves in a row.”
Fifth-seeded Otis-Bison (28-12) returned to state for the third straight season after third place and second place in the last two falls in Class 1A, Division II. In the semifinals, O-B beat Atwood-Rawlins County, a 1A state qualifier last fall, in three sets.
“The consolidation of 1A together, and then also having some people come down into 1A, was very intimidating, but it’s pretty great to see these smaller schools make their mark,” coach Janelle Maier said.
Top-seeded Thunder Ridge finished 34-4 this fall, and 33-5 last year but lost in the sub-state finale both times.
“We have passed the ball well all season, we have handled the ball well all season,” Thunder Ridge coach Bruce Hardacre said. “For whatever reason, they put a lot of pressure on us with their serve, and we had a hard time serve-receiving and getting the ball up to our setter.”
The first set was tied at 12 before O-B finished on a big run. Overall, the Cougars delivered four aces and TR had a service error. The second set had 12 ties. O-B finished with five aces and took advantage of four Longhorn service errors.
“It was awesome,” coach Janelle Maier said. “Anytime that we can get an ace, it just feeds our fire, and it’s just like a kill or a block.”
Anderson had a pair of big blocks.
“Cora played an outstanding match,” coach Maier said.
O-B senior Kaleigh Maier is 5-6 and much shorter than multiple Longhorns. She read the defense effectively and had two kills, while 5-7 sophomore Lauren Maier finished with seven kills, while senior Hannah Tanger passed well.
“She’s been frustrated a lot earlier this season with people reading her really well,” coach Maier said of Kaleigh. “Once she kind of got a couple of kills over and she’s getting a little bit more confidence, and that can take you a long ways.”
At 24 all, Hardacre had her first attack error in 23 attempts. O-B limited her to .304 hitting. She was hitting .468 entering sub-state. Thunder Ridge had Mariah Stauffer, last year’s second-leading hitter behind Hardacre, return for the first time since early season after a back injury.
After an O-B service error, Wiltse delivered a kill for 26-25. Then, the Cougars dug three times before closing out the match.
“It’s really nice that we have just a stacked team,” Anderson said. “We are good all around.”
CLASS 1A STATE QUALIFIERS,/b>
St. John's/Tipton (32-8)
South Gray (28-11)