The top-seeded Trojans outlasted seven other schools in perhaps the hottest gymnasium in Kansas Saturday to claim another Class 3A sub-state championship and earn the opportunity to pursue its fourth consecutive state title.
Though this will be coach Sandy Arnold’s eighth year to take a team to state in 10 years at the helm, she admitted to being relieved to nail down the sub-state crown.
“It wasn’t like I didn’t feel we could do it, it’s just that little thing in the back of your mind that says if we don’t do it, we’re done,” Arnold said. “It’s kind of a relief when you win and get done with it. Now we can move on.”
Playing in non-air-conditioned Robert C. Brown Gymnasium, where the indoor temperature hovered around triple digits on an unseasonably warm late-October Saturday, Hillsboro marched to the title with wins over Lyons (25-7, 25-13) and Beloit (25-14, 25-16) before knocking off Southeast of Saline in the finals (25-18, 23-25, 25-14).
Arnold said she didn’t mind the heat at all, considering her team practices in that environment all season.
“I was very happy, actually,” she said. “But I did hear people complain about it, that’s for sure.”
Aside from frequent breaks during the championship match to wipe perspiration off the floor, the Trojans seemed to thrive in their home environment and fed off an energized student body and local fan base.
“It was fun to have it at home,” Arnold said. “I just like our facilities. It would be nice to have air-conditioning, but I still think it helps—at this point, at least.”
In the opening game, Hillsboro raced to an 8-0 lead in the first set against Lyons, who came in with a record of 10-24, and kept the Lions in single digits to the end.
Lyons was in contention at 14-9 in Set 2, but a pair of kills by Alex Ratzlaff sparked a six-point run behind the serving of Julie Sinclair to fuel the Trojans to a 12-point victory.
The semifinals turned into a Trojan-fest with three of the four teams sharing the same mascot.
The Beloit Trojans (27-8) battled HHS evenly in the first set before Hillsboro took the lead for good at 9-8 on a kill by Emily Jost. Beloit was still within 17-13 when a kill by Ratzlaff ignited a six-point scoring run with Ratzlaff serving and contributing three aces.
In the second set, Hills -boro took an early 5-1 lead, but Beloit pulled to within 18-16 near the end. After Hillsboro achieved a side-out, Lakyn Johnson stepped in and served the rest of the way for the nine-point victory.
“I felt if we were getting the ball to the outside quick enough, their blockers were going to be late and we would be able to hit on them,” Arnold said. “As long as we pound (the ball) a little bit, then we can start putting tips in, and it’s really tough because they don’t know how to guard you.
“I also thought we served pretty well to keep their middles out of the game—the two middles were their best players,” she added. “It took us most of the match to figure out how to do it, but we finally started blocking right at the end of the game.”
The championship match featured a pair of Trojan squads that had faced off earlier in the season at the Southeast of Saline Invitational. The two teams remained close in the opening set, but with the score 18-14, Hillsboro took control with a 7-4 finish.
Hillsboro’s only stutter-step of the day came in Set 2. The home team led from the start, but a temporary loss of focus turned a 15-11 lead into a 16-17 deficit. The set was tied five times after that, but Hillsboro never regained the lead and ended up losing by two points.
“I felt like we got comfortable, like we thought maybe we had it won already,” Arnold said. “We stopped moving our feet, and when you start doing that you’re not going to get good passes, and when your pass doesn’t work then nothing clicks very well.
“I told them nobody is going to hand this to you. You’re going to have to beat them. I didn’t ever feel like we were going to lose, I was just disappointed that we had to play three when we could have done it in two.”
Hillsboro was never seriously threatened in the third and deciding set. Whether the visitors finally withered in the heat or the home team finally seized its destiny, Hillsboro slowly but steadily built a lead from 4-4 to the final 10-point margin.
“I’m definitely proud of the girls,” Arnold said. “I’ve had some coaches tell me we’re not as strong as we have been. That’s fine, if that’s what they think. But we’re trying to find a way to get to where we were. We’ll use our strengths in any way we can. Hopefully, we’ll surprise some people.”
State—The Trojans have won three state titles in a row—3A titles in 2011 and 2012, followed by a 2A title last fall. They will be working for a fourth one beginning with pool play on Friday afternoon at Emporia’s White Auditorium.
From the start, the road won’t be easy. The state seeds teams on the basis of season records, but Hillsboro’s pool will contain three of the top four teams ranked in 3A by the Kansas Volleyball Association. Silver Lake is No. 1, Hillsboro No. 2 and league rival Hesston is No. 4.
“If you want to be the best you’ve got to beat the best,” Arnold said. “You might as well start out right away. You have to be confident. I hope our experience being (at state) will be an advantage to us.”
Arnold said her team is still hungry.
“My girls won the league preseason tournament, beat Mac, won our tournament, and we win sub-state—and never did my girls act like ‘this is the greatest thing on earth.’
“I think in the back of their minds they know we’re not done yet. This is all great, but we’re not where we want to be yet. They’re pumped and they’re excited, but it’s, ‘OK, good job, but let’s get on to the next thing.’”