ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Regarding the Hillsboro HIgh School volleyball team’s trip to the state tournament on Friday, the adage proved painfully true: Getting there truly was half the fun.
Competing there…not so much.
Only occasionally flashing the form that carried them in Cinderella-like style to the big dance in Salina, the Trojans went home without the thrill of a victory, losing all three pool matches in the minimum two games.
“It was an awesome experience, but it was a little bit bittersweet, too,” said Sandy Arnold, who was making her first trip to state as a high school coach.
“The whole idea of making it to state was definitely more than I could have asked for. But at the same time, I wish we could have played more to our potential than we did-particularly in the last match. It was kind of a sad way to end the season, actually.”
Already at 0-2 and with no chance to advance, the Trojans squared off in the late match against Mid-Central Activities Association rival Lyons, who also stood at 0-2.
Instead of competing aggressively against a team that was more an equal than their previous two opponents-state powers Conway Springs and Rossville-the Trojans faded quietly into the night, 5-25, 17-25.
“That was a hard one for me,” Arnold said. “I wanted to prove to people that we deserved to be there.
“We hadn’t played Lyons since the beginning of the year and I thought we were much improved. But we just struggled. Our passing really went downhill, and when you can’t pass, you can’t pound.
“That just messed us up and frustration started to set in with a lot of them-you could read it on their faces. And it probably showed on mine, too.”
Arnold said she wanted to end their state visit with a victory.
“It wasn’t just for me-I wanted it for them,” she said of her girls. “I wanted them to have a good experience going out. So it was disappointing in that sense.”
Ironically, the Trojans played their best volleyball against the two state powers, particularly the opening game against No. 1 seeded Conway Springs, who came in at 31-1.
The Trojans led as late as 9-8 in Game 1 and were still within three points at 15-18 as they neared the home stretch. But the tournament-savvy Cardinals stepped up and won six of the last eight points for a 25-17 win.
“We started out quite well, actually,” Arnold said. “I felt like we were on the offense. When we hit at them, they had trouble sometimes.
“We chose to take the line away from Conway, and our defense played pretty well on the cross court. But they’re so smart and so athletic that they can change things up-and then you start scrambling just to get the ball up. Then you lose you the pass, and you can’t set up your offense quite as well that way.”
Following a competitive start, Hillsboro played as if it were conceding Game 2 to save energy for Rossville. A passive Trojan squad fell behind 2-13 at the start and never challenged until it was far too late to come back, losing 11-25.
The Trojans then kicked up their effort against Rossville, who was seeded fourth at 29-7. The two teams were neck-and-neck until the score reached 11-13 in favor of Rossville. Incredibly, the Bulldogs went on a 12-0 run to nail down what turned out to be a comfortable 25-11 win.
But this time, the Trojans did not lay down in Game 2. The Bulldogs led from the start, but never by more than four points. Still hanging in at 17-20, the Trojans lost five of the last seven points to take it on the chin, 19-25.
“Sometimes I don’t think our girls are confident enough to use a ball that’s not perfectly set or perfectly passed,” Arnold said. “If it’s hard for them to make the set they want, or the hit they want, they play careful instead of hammering.
“It was a little more of a passive play than aggressive play,” she said. “At times it’s smart to do that, but at other times you’ve got to keep going because they’re going to put it right back at you if you give them another chance.”
Arnold said she learned a lot in her first trip to state, and she hoped her non-seniors did, too.
“I learned a lot about the competition when you get there-it’s great, at a high level,” she said. “I learned it’s going to take a lot of work for both me and my girls in the next few years to get back there and play at that level.”
Despite the less-than-satisfying performance at state, Arnold said her first season at HHS was a memorable one. Going from 4-13 at mid-season to 15-15 and a state berth at the end was exciting.
“I’ll remember how much they learned and how much they used that knowledge to make themselves a better team,” she said. “I really thought we were a different team the second half of the season-until we got to the state tournament. That wasn’t the team I finished the regular season with.
“At times, they played quite well, but you’ve got to be on top of your game all the time at state.”
Arnold said she’ll also remember the work ethic of this team, which closed the books with a 15-18 record.
“What I’ll remember about this group is that they put a lot of work into it, and really used what I taught them,” she said. “They tried it and accepted it. I couldn’t have asked for more my first year.
“It was a great season. Like I said at the beginning, I’d much rather have a slow start and move up than the other way. I think that’s the great part-we came around at the end when we needed to.”