Grand Island Northwest has been a staple at the state tournament over the past two decades plus. The Vikings had qualified for state 23 straight years heading into Saturday’s district finals.
That streak won’t reach 24 as Northwest, the 12 seed, fell in four sets at No. 5 Gretna East in the B-5 final. The Griffins are haded to state in the program’s first year for the new school.
“I’m speechless,” Gretna East junior Hayden Hart said. “I have no words. I’m so proud of this team and I’m proud of everyone here. They’re all my best friends and most importantly my sisters. They all have my heart. We all have each other’s backs and we just fought through to the end. We never gave up. Every single point, we just kept fighting and fighting, no matter how tired we were.”
The Griffins took down the Vikings 25-18, 18-25, 25-14, 26-24 on Saturday to earn their ticket to the Class B state tournament.
“Obviously it’s very exciting,” Gretna East coach Mike Brandon said. “The girls worked extremely hard all season long. That was their goal from day one and they did all the work. I told him before the match, ‘You’ve done all the work that it takes to get there, now just go out and execute,’ and they did a tremendous job.”
Hart, an Oral Roberts commit, led everyone with 15 kills. Fellow junior Maddie Schnell, who struggled in the Griffins’ sub-district semifinal loss at Elkhorn North, bounced back in a big way with 12 kills on .257 hitting and two aces.
“She played great,” Brandon said about Schnell. “She was clutch all night. I thought both left sides had great matches, and we knew they would have to, and we talked to them about it before. They both showed up and they played great.”
They got some help from their setter as well as junior Nyah Potthoff called her own number throughout the match, finishing with eight kills to go with her 35 assists and two aces.
“We’ve been working all year on Nyah being aggressive at the net,” Brandon said. “She’s trying to feel that out and this was her best performance as an attacker, I thought, all year, so it was at the right time.”
The teams battled back and forth in the first set until Gretna East pulled away, using a 6-1 run to build a 21-15 lead then maintaining the advantage the rest of the way. Junior libero Maggie Williams served an ace on set point to close it out. Schnell got off to a great start with five kills on seven swings.
Northwest answered in a big way in set two as Brooklyn Beck served an 8-0 run to give the Vikings a 16-7 lead, and Northwest cruised through the rest of the set from there. Kyla Sybrandts led the attack with five kills on eight swings for the Vikings.
Gretna East turned the tables again in set three. The lead change hands a couple of times early before the Griffins put together a 7-0 run to build a 20-12 lead. Potthoff closed it out from there with two kills and an ace during the last five rallies.
“Just mentally and physically, I know that we get tired sometimes and we just want to stop and just take breaks, but we can’t,” Hart said of the team’s turnaround in set three. “We’ve got to move. I know that every single one of these girls put their hearts out there on the floor tonight and I’m so proud of each and every one of them.”
Gretna East jumped ahead early in set four then, after a slew of sideouts, used a 4-1 run to create a bit of separation. The Griffins led by four again at 20-16 and looked to be heading for an easy win until the Vikings dug deep and mounted a comeback.
Northwest scored four straight to tie it at 20-all. East won three of the next four rallies with a pair of Hart kills and another from Schnell, then the teams traded sideouts to make it 24-22 and match point for the Griffins. Northwest wasn’t done yet, winning the next two rallies to tie it up again, but Schnell terminated for the Griffins then a Viking hit long on the second match point to end it.
“That’s one of the things we’ve been talking about lately is just being composed,” Brandon said. “Everybody makes a big deal out of ‘you don’t have seniors’ and stuff like that, but I told them, ‘Look, you’ve been in enough tight matches, you’ve had really tough competition throughout the season, so you’ve been in those situations. You’ll be fine, just play with composure,’ and they did.”
Hart was on the bench for the final point and as soon as the line judge’s flag went up she was among the Griffins sprinting onto the court to dogpile with the rest of the team.
“I jumped up out of my seat,” Hart said. “I was on fire. I ran out there and I was like, ‘We did it,’ and I knew we could. So we gave it our all and we’re going to state, so I’m so excited.”
In its first year, @GretnaEastVB is headed to the state tournament.
The 5th-seeded Griffins beat No. 12 Grand Island Northwest 25-18, 18-25, 25-14, 26-24.
— Jacob Padilla (@JacobPadilla_) October 28, 2023
Hart, Schnell, Potthoff and middle blocker Hailey Levinson all played varsity for Gretna last year as Hart and Potthoff saw xtensive playing time while Schnell and Levinson played in 12 and 10 matches, respectively. Those four stepped into prominent roles at the new school and have now led the Griffins to state.
“At first, it was a little difficult,” Hart said of the transition to a new school. “It was hard because we have some good friends of ours at [Gretna] High, but we just knew that we could do this and we could get to state. And for the people that we have right now and for the people joining us in the freshmen, Ava [Waters] on our team, she helped us so much, and we just fought till the end. We love Gretna, but this is our time to shine and this is a different season.”
Senior middle blocker Mikyna Stoppkotte led the Vikings with 11 kills while fellow senior middle Haylee Brandt added nine kills. The Vikings’ season ends at 21-13, but they have the Griffins’ respect.
“When I saw we got Northwest, I was not thrilled with that matchup,” Brandon said. “They’re obviously a powerhouse in class B. So anytime you play them, you’re worried, and of course, they came out and battled like we knew they would. So yeah, it’s it’s an honor to compete with them, that’s for sure.”
In their first season, the Griffins went 25-10 and won a home district final to advance to next weekend’s state tournament in Lincoln.
“It’s tremendous,” Brandon said. “We didn’t know what we’d have coming into the year as far as what kind of team, what we’d look like. I’m just very happy for the girls. They worked their tails off all year, so I’m just happy for them.”
Other Class B District Results:
>> B-1: No. 1 Norris def. No. 16 Blair, 3-0 (25-11, 25-17, 25-5)
>> B-2: No. 2 Elkhorn North def. No. 15 Omaha Mercy, 3-0 (25-12, 25-11, 25-10)
>> B-3: No. 3 Omaha Skutt Catholic def. No. 14 Alliance, 3-0 (25-16, 25-7, 25-18)
>> B-4: No. 4 Bennington def. No. 13 Omaha Duchesne Academy, 3-1 (25-15, 21-25, 25-15, 25-13)
>> B-6: No. 6 Waverly def. No. 11 Gering, 3-0 (25-17, 25-14, 25-14)
>> B-7: No. 7 Seward def. No. 10 Beatrice, 3-0 (25-19, 25-17, 26-24)
>> B-8: No. 8 Scottsbluff def. No. 9 Crete, 3-0 (25-23, 25-20, 25-17)