The Hillsboro High School volleyball team won its second consecutive state championship Saturday in Salina. The 25-20 and 25-16 victory over Garden Plain sealed back-to-back titles.
Even though the feeling had yet to sink in, senior hitter Tena Loewen marveled at the accomplishment. Loewen and head coach Sandy Arnold agreed that the second title, with every team in the state gunning for them all year, was more difficult than the first. Loewen said the Trojans, featuring three exceptional hitters, an all-tournament libero, and a resilient supporting cast of roleplayers, was a special group.
“It’s incredible. I’m not thankful enough for it,” Loewen said. “I wouldn’t trade these girls for anyone.”
Garden Plain head coach Gina Clark talked to Arnold after the championship match and told the Hillsboro coach it was the Trojans’ diversified attack that made the difference in the tournament.
For the second consecutive year, junior hitter Addie Lackey reserved her best volleyball for the state tournament. Her finest match was against Southeast of Saline in the semifinals. After taking the first game decisively 25-12, Hillsboro found itself down 23-17 in the second game. With freshman Shannon Heiser rattling off a five-serve streak, Lackey delivered four straight points. She rolled two hits out of bounds off the left-side double block. She then scored a tip that sailed over the defense and touched down on the backline. With the score at 23-22, Southeast of Saline pulled away with consecutive points to win the game.
However, Hillsboro swung the momentum and won the third game, 25-16. Lackey ended the match with an ace to punctuate a three-serve streak.
“Again, she was our secret weapon,” Arnold said. “She got hidden in the shadows.”
Freshman Alex Ratzlaff was the only freshman named to the all-tournament team. As per her usual performance, she provided some sublime moments of athletic prowess. On two separate occasions in the tournament, one of which was against Garden Plain in the second game of the championship match, Ratzlaff spiked a set gliding far to the left side of the net with her left hand violently to the floor. It made the score, 24-16. Ratzlaff is right handed.
She is also an especially versatile all-around player. Throughout the tournament, she provided blocks from the middle position on the court.
All of that said, when the Trojans needed someone to step up at three crucial points in the tournament, the team turned to Loewen.
Loewen played her best match of the season against Garden Plain. She had 13 kills, split seven and six between games. She hit to all areas of the court — down the line, to the middle between defenders, to the back line, to the near corners, and off blocks. She had four digs, serving streaks of four and three, two aces, and a tip. On one point, she had a dig and a kill.
She also made the play of the tournament for Hillsboro. With Hillsboro up 15-14 in game one, trading points early on, a Garden Plain tip seemed destined to touch the hardwood as it descended past a dumbstruck Hillsboro middle hitter who watched it fall. Through incredible instincts and hustle, Loewen ran up from her middle back position while the ball was in the air, sprawled out with the fingers of her right hand spread out in desperation, and popped the ball up in the air high enough for the Trojan defense to bump the ball over the net. Hillsboro eventually won the point with a Garden Plain error.
“It was just adrenaline,” Loewen said.
With Lackey providing a three-serve streak, starting with an ace to the back line, the Trojans went on a four-point run to go up 19-15. Lackey and Loewen both had diving digs to keep possessions alive during the rally. Loewen had four kills out of the six final points for Hillsboro to take the game. With a four-serve streak and four more kills, Hillsboro took a 12-7 lead in the second game and never looked back in the second game.
The moment of highest gloom for Hillsboro in the tournament came at the hands of Silver Lake in the second match of pool play.
After taking the first game against the Eagles, 25-23, Hillsboro fell behind 11-4 in the second game. Loewen had a five-serve streak with an ace to bring Hillsboro within three at 11-8. The Trojans could not put together another streak in the contest and Silver Lake made adjustments with their blocking. On consecutive hits, Loewen was blocked twice by the Eagles’ 6-foot tall middle hitter Alyssa Schultejans. Silver Lake went on a 9-0 run to win the match, 25-14.
Loewen and Hillsboro responded in the third game as they have all season by raising the level of play. With the Trojans down 5-3, Loewen scored on consecutive kills, slicing her hits a little to the left so they would bounce off blocks out of bounds.
“She always makes the adjustment,” Arnold said of Loewen.
After returning the favor with a block on Schultejans, Loewen had a three-serve streak with an ace to the back left corner of the court to tie the score at 10. Hillsboro took the lead with a Heiser block over the middle and did not relinquish it, eventually winning 25-20.
Against Southeast of Saline, Loewen had five kills and a three-serve streak.
“People don’t realize how much we’ll miss her next year,” Arnold said. “She is our leader.”
Loewen has always led by example; last season her work ethic and hustle could not be ignored by her teammates. That was taken to new levels this season. It was a season of secret frustration for the senior hitter, frustration that she was not performing to her own high expectations.
Loewen had only six months of therapy and recovery time after tearing her left knee ACL during a basketball game. In comparison, commentators have admired the ability of NFL running back Adrian Peterson to come back after nine months of rehab from an ACL tear.
Most of the season, Loewen has been playing at 85 percent of her athletic capacity.
“She’s that at 85 percent, wow,” Arnold said.
She had expressed concern about her progress on separate occasions to best friend, libero Danae Bina. Usually, it was those two players who close down the gym for Hillsboro, staying long after practice.
“I was late to many family meals,” Arnold said.
She also told Arnold that she wanted to close her senior campaign with a bang, by winning another championship, and she did not know if that was possible hindered by a healing leg.
She never let anyone else on the team know about her concerns.
“When you have somebody working that hard, you can’t help but work hard too,” fellow senior Erin Loewen said.
Tena Loewen also said the injury did provide one blessing in disguise — it made her a more vocal leader. She made it a point of emphasis this season to communicate better on the floor and in huddles.
“She is an all-around great teammate,” Erin Loewen said.
More than just being a leader, Tena Loewen set the culture for the Hillsboro volleyball team.
The Trojans were apt to raise their game in crucial moments this season because Loewen raised her game when a contest was on the line.
While she had doubts about her own performance, Loewen’s confidence in her teammates never wavered this season. Last week, she said she never had a moment’s doubt that the team would make it out of sub-state, a tournament Arnold said makes her stomach turn with anxiety. What was left unsaid is the team collectively held the same attitude about their future because of Loewen.
The Trojans were unselfish team because Loewen is an unselfish player. Arnold said Loewen immediately embraced Ratzlaff and Heiser as players who would help the Trojans win. She never thought about the players taking away her hits. With Loewen leading the way, the team had to follow suit.
Arnold said Loewen is incredibly coachable, buying into whatever she suggests. The coach said that definitely rubs off on the rest of the team.
The Trojans were an affable and loose team because that was the way Loewen carried herself. She said she made it a point to tell jokes and be silly in between matches during the tournament to keep the team relaxed.
Frankly, the Trojans title defense was not possible without Tena Loewen. The Trojans were a special team in part because Loewen was a special volleyball player.