The Hillsboro High School volleyball team won its home tournament, the Trojan Invitational, Saturday. It was the first championship for Hillsboro in the tournament in over four years.
“It’s been a while since we’ve won this thing,” head coach Sandy Arnold said.
Saying they merely won would be an understatement. The Trojans did not lose a game in the tournament. They defeated Chapman, 25-9 and 25-13, Minneapolis, 25-14 and 25-11, and league foe Sterling, 25-8 and 25-8 in pool play.
The team’s dominance was on display in the championship match against 4A Circle. Led by a 9-serve streak, featuring five aces, by incumbent 3A player of the year Tena Loewen, Hillsboro defeated Circle, 25-5, in the first game.
With three kills from Loewen, the Trojans opened up a 10-3 advantage in game 2. Circle got the score as close as 18-14 before Hillsboro pulled away for a 25-16 victory.
The Trojans were only tested once all day, a 25-20 game 2 against Rock Creek in the tournament semifinal. Rock Creek tied the score at 18, but a four-serve streak from Danae Bina with two aces gave Hillsboro breathing room. An ace from Addie Lackey sealed the match.
Having won the first game 25-17 against Rock Creek, Arnold said the second game was the type of set the Trojans would have lost earlier in the season. The team would collectively rely on its talent to raise their game another level and take the third set decisively in such a match earlier this year. Arnold said the performance in the second game against Rock Creek was an example of the Trojans’ resolve, which has been forged through relentless practice in the middle of the season.
“I’m pleased with the way we responded,” she said.
It was no surprise that Loewen and Bina had key serving streaks in victories on Saturday. Arnold said she cannot keep either of them out of the gym. Long after the final whistle has sounded on practice, they can be seen working on their jump serves. Arnold said Loewen especially has learned to guide her serve to specific positions on the court. On Saturday her serves violently dropped wherever she wanted them to land.
“It’s like a bullet,” teammate Maci Schlehuber said of Loewen’s topspin serve.
Arnold also pointed out freshman hitter Alex Ratzlaff has made major strides improving her hitting. Earlier this season the athletic and talented player would rely on brute force, trying to smash every spike home. Against better competition, those spikes would often be returned by stout blocks. Maturing every match, Ratzlaff has observed when to try to roll serves off blocks or when to look for tips when teams sell out for a contest. On Saturday she mixed up the placement of her hits, sending more spikes screaming down the line.
Some of that work in practice has been less about skill and more about embracing a particular role. Arnold said her three middle hitters, seniors Erin Loewen and Taylor Thiessen and freshman Shannon Heiser, have focused on a specific task to help the team win — blocking. Blocking is the No. 1 skill Arnold wants to improve going forward to sub-state.
Erin Loewen, Thiessen, and Heiser have been willing to take on secondary roles. No player has sacrificed more to embrace a role than Lackey. Lackey would be a No. 1 hitter, the center of an offense, for any other team in the state; for Hillsboro, she is the team’s third option. Instead of letting her position affect her play negatively, she has done a little bit of everything for Hillsboro. She is one of the best passers on the team. She is the team’s most consistent server, leading the team in serves this season. And when she gets her chances, she can still hit. She had a plethora of kills in the final game against Circle.
“I felt like we played pretty consistently all day,” Arnold said.
The player who deserves the most credit for the team’s consistent play was setter Schlehuber. No player has improved more this season at her particular role.
Arnold said Schlehuber has been under an immense amount of pressure this season. Before this year, she had never set in more than spot duty in practice. She has been tasked with guiding a Trojan attack that is as high-powered as any offense in Kansas volleyball at any level.
“I’m trying to get Maci to relax,” Arnold said. “She tries hard because she wants to please.”
It has taken time to learn where each of her hitters wants the ball. She said Tena Loewen and Lackey want the set lower so they can strike down on the ball and hit around blocks. Ratzlaff wants the ball lofted as high as possible so she can hit over blocks.
Schlehuber has dedicated herself to deliver these sets with precision. Arnold created a tool, a tub about the size of peach basket suspended on a frame of PVC pipe at about seven feet tall, the height of the net. Her task is to land each set inside the basket, which is harder than its sounds. Arnold made sure to have non-setters on the team try to land balls into the tub to make them understand what Schlehuber is trying to accomplish.
“See, setting is difficult,” Arnold told her team. “It’s hard to put that ball in the same spot every time.”
Unlike Tena Loewen, Lackey, and Ratzlaff, Schlehuber did not play varsity as a freshman. She played in a reserve role as a sophomore, mainly as a back-row specialist. She played more as a junior last season but was still a role player.
As she has throughout her volleyball career, Schlehuber has improved steadily this season. On Saturday, her sets were as consistent as they have been all season. Arnold praised Schlehuber’s understanding of the game. While the team transitioned well in and out of blocks, Schlehuber often has the difficult task of backing out of a block, stepping back and looking for a pass, finding the right hitter, and, after releasing the ball, preparing to go up for another block. Arnold pointed out that when she had to go back to block, Schlehuber set the ball higher to set up her defensive position.
Schlehuber’s communication has improved greatly. Arnold said she was pleased with how she called out back row hits to her teammates.