A year ago, a senior-heavy Lincoln Pius X team fell to Millard West in a district final, coming one win short of qualifying for the state tournament.
On Wednesday, a very different-looking Pius team made it over that hump, defeating Papillion-La Vista in the A-7 District Final to punch its ticket to state, capping what coach Katie Wenz called an “uphill climb” of a season.
“I had the confidence in them all along, but we had so many new kids and our whole rotation was new … It was a lot of trusting the process and just getting better game by game,” Wenz said. “It’s exciting. It’s really good to be back. It’s good to go back on a win.”
After losing 2-1 and 2-0 to the Monarchs in their two regular season meetings, the Thunderbolts found a way to win when it mattered most, defeating the Monarchs 25-22, 27-25, 19-25, 25-22.
“They played so well, and I know we lost to Papillion a couple times this year,” Wenz said. “So we had a long talk today about what does our mental set look like? They can beat us twice in the regular season, but now it’s important.”
Junior middle blocker Faith Venable, an Omaha commit, led everyone with 20 kills on .500 hitting in a monster performance. She called the feeling of clinching a state tournament berth “amazing.”
“I feel like I’m on cloud nine,” Venable said. “I know my team feels the same. We’ve never experienced anything like this and we worked so hard all summer, all season and finally we’re here and it feels so surreal.”
Venable has been the Bolts’ go-to player all season with 101 more kills then second place heading into Wednesday, but she wasn’t the only offensive option in the final. Junior Keeleigh Knobbe wasn’t far behind with 16 kills on .438 hitting while sophomore Ava Markowski added 13 kills and senior Sidda Hagedorn chipped in 11. Senior setter Sami Chesley did a great job of spreading the ball around all match, topping 50 assists in four sets.
“We really worked the past week in practice of moving the ball around,” Wenz said. “I think in the middle of a season we became so — everybody knew what we were doing. We weren’t deceptive. So we worked a lot this week on moving the ball around so people don’t know where it’s going. Faith is great, but we’ve got to get away from that. And I think that’s really what happened. What helped is having the confidence to get away and try something new and take a risk.”
The teams went back and forth throughout the first set with at least nine ties and four lead changes, but Pius took over late, closing the set on a 4-1 run including three kills from Hagedorn. The Thunderbolts totaled 19 kills and hit over .400 as they fired on all cylinders out of the gate.
Wenz said she played a clip of a Matt Rhule pre-game speech for her team to fire them up for the match, and it appeared to pay off in the first set.
“It was just get out there, take a risk, point by point by point, and that’s all we focused on,” Wenz said. “We talked a lot this week about you can’t get to point 25 on point seven. So it was a mental game of battling.”
The second set was the best of the night, featuring even more ties than the first set. Pius made a big push mid-way through with a 5-0 run for an 18-13 lead, but the Monarchs dug deep and battled back to tie it up at 21-21, 24-24 and 25-25. However, Pius found Venable for a big kill then Kami Wemhoff served an ace to earn the deuce-game victory.
“At the end there we had probably our best serve receive rotation in and we had Faith starting in the front row,” Wenz said. “It’s no secret that when Faith gets in there, she can rip a ball.”
Papillion-La Vista turned the tables in the third set, racing out to a 10-2 lead. Pius fired back with a 6-1 run to cut the deficit to three, but that’s as close as they would get as the Monarchs maintained a cushion throughout the set. Mia Tvrdy and Lilly Pillay notched five kills apiece in the set as the Monarchs extended the match.
Wenz said she gave the team a pep talk between the third and fourth set, and the Thunderbolts responded.
“I just told them ‘Your energy is down, you look defeated. That game’s over. Nobody’s going to feel bad for you right now. They had to get 25 points, you do too,’” Wenz said. “And so I just said, ‘Forget it. You’re big girls right now. It’s a fourth set; figure out how far you want to go.’ And so it was just no poor mes right now. Go up and play.”
The first half of the set was neck-and-neck with neither side managing to create more than two points of separation. Papio led 16-14 midway through, but the Thunderbolts made the decisive run, ripping off six straight with Chesley serving to take a 20-16 lead, then wining two of the next three rallies to push it to five. The Monarchs put together a 5-2 run to cut the deficit to two and save a pair of match points, but Knobbe closed it out on the third attempt with a big kill.
“It was so much fun,” Venable said about the match. “I couldn’t stop smiling the whole match. I told my coach, I’m like, ‘This is the most fun I’ve ever had.’”
Pillay led Papillion-La Vista with 14 kills while Tvrdy, an Oregon commit, and Morgan Glaser added 13 kills apiece. Lillian Vitera chipped in 10 kills, setter Reagan Hickey dished out 38 assists and libero Faith Frame, a Cincinnati commit, finished with 22 digs.
The season isn’t over for the Monarchs, however. Each of the district hosts came out on top Wednesday night, which means the Monarchs qualify for state as the wildcard.
Other Class A district final results:
>> A-1: Papillion-La Vista South def. Elkhorn South, 3-0 (25-19, 25-23, 25-13)
>> A-2: Lincoln Southwest def. Millard North, 3-0 (25-20, 25-20, 25-15)
>> A-3: Lincoln East def. Millard South, 3-0, (25-14, 25-12, 25-17)
>> A-4: Omaha Westside def. Gretna, 3-1 (25-22, 20-25, 25-22, 25-12)
>> A-5: Grand Island def. Columbus, 3-0 (25-20, 26-24, 25-19)
>> A-6: Bellevue West def. Millard West, 3-1 (17-25, 25-17, 27-25, 25-21)