ORIGINALLY WRITTEN DON RATZLAFF
Throughout its dream season, the Hillsboro High volleyball team has broken huddle with the phrase, “Go get it!”
On Saturday, the Trojans did just that-and in dramatic style.
Hillsboro, now 32-1 and ranked second in Class 3A, achieved a season-long goal of reaching the state tournament for the second time in three years by sweeping all three sub-state matches on its home floor in the minimum two games.
But the Game 2 victory in the championship match against Hutchinson Trinity provided the exclamation point.
After posting a relatively easy 25-16 victory in Game 1, the Trojans trailed throughout Game 2 and found themselves on the brink of defeat at 18-24.
In rally-play format, a single mistake-a misplayed dig, an errant hit, a missed serve-against the talented Celtic squad (27-4) would have meant going to Game 3.
But the Trojans, behind the perfect serving of junior Amy Neufeld, willed themselves to the eventual 26-24 victory, scoring eight straight points. Tina Frick, Hillsboro’s 6-foot-2 senior hitter, accounted for four of them, three on kills and one on a block.
“It was just such a good mental victory for us,” coach Sandy Arnold said of the comeback. “It wasn’t like I said anything spectacular or new (during a timeout). I told them I’d really like to take this in two games if we can do it. Let’s get it done here.”
She credited Neufeld’s serving, Frick’s hitting and the team’s defense as being keys to the win.
“I know there were some long rallies during those six points, which says a lot for us mentally,” Arnold said.
The Trojans began their road to the title with a 25-12, 25-20 win over Marion in the opening round of the win-or-go-home tournament.
After scoring the first three points and never looking back in Game 1, the Trojans had their hands full in Game 2.
The Warriors, winners of only one match all season, refused to go quietly into the night. A pair of service aces by Erin Carr pulled Marion into a 5-5 tie. A hitting error by Frick gave the Warriors a lead they would not relinquish until the Trojans pulled back into a tie at 15-15.
The game was tied one last time at 19 before a Marion service error gave Hillsboro the lead for good.
“All I can say is at sub-state you always have in the back of your mind that if we lose we’re done-no matter who’s the better team,” Arnold said.
“Marion had absolutely nothing to lose, and they knew we had everything to lose. I think they picked it up a bit knowing that.”
In the semifinals, the Trojans found themselves paired off against Remington (15-13), a team that lacked a comparable power attack but made up for it with scrappy defense that kept many hard Trojan hits in play.
After the Trojans took an early lead in Game 1, the Broncos caught up at 5-5 and did not trail again until an attack error put Hillsboro on top, 16-15.
Senior JuliAnne Chisholm, known for her monster hits on the front line, showed her versatility with consecutive serving aces to increase the margin to three points-a lead Hillsboro more or less maintained until a kill by Chisholm shut the door at 25-21.
Game 2 was a near replay, with neither team leading by more than one point until consecutive errors by Hillsboro gave Remington a 10-7 advantage.
But Hillsboro rebounded with five straight points, including back-to-back service aces by Jenesa Klose. The Trojans maintained a narrow lead that ended with an identical 25-21 score.
“They seemed to pick up everything we threw at them,” Arnold said of the Broncos. “We tried to find holes, and they kept covering them. They didn’t hit hard, but they seemed to be able to make something even out of a bad pass or a bad set.
“They come out of the Heart of America League, so I figured they’d be strong. A lot of their losses came from those (top HOA) teams: Moundridge, Little River and Trinity.”
Coming-Hillsboro will return to state competition at Salina’s Bicentennial Center under very different circumstances from its most recent appearance. Two years ago, the Trojans were a Cinderella squad that slipped into the Big Dance with a .500 record.
The clock struck midnight when the Trojans began pool play and they were never in contention.
“I know especially those seniors remember two years ago,”Arnold said. “They were very disappointed in their performance there and would like to come back and make amends for that.”
Now ranked among the state’s elite, the Trojans are expecting to make an impact. Hillsboro will join Silver Lake (24-9), Sacred Heart (31-2) and Cheney (25-8) in Pool B play on Friday.
If the Trojans can finish among the top two, they will join the top two finishers from Pool A in bracket play on Saturday starting at 2 p.m. Pool A includes Oberlin (31-0), Osage City (23-10), Frontenac (30-3) and Wellsville (34-4). HHS will open play Friday at 3:30 p.m. against Silver Lake.
“We’ve set our sights higher this year,” Arnold said. “We’ve been counting the steps all the way from the beginning of the year, using those as baby steps toward the big goal.
“They know there’s another part of the steps we haven’t reached yet.”