Lady Chiefs blanked at state tourney
KANSAS CITY -- It was two years ago that a talented group of seniors led the Santa Fe volleyball team to its third straight appearance in the MSHSAA Class 1 Championships.
While head coach Stacy Thomas knew "a lot of people didn't have faith we could get back to this tournament" this season, she did. Once the Lady Chiefs got to Kansas City's Municipal Auditorium, though, their inexperience in the spotlight showed, going 0-4 for a fourth-place finish.
"Obviously it didn't come out the way we anticipated or hoped it would," Thomas admitted. "It was a big stage and we may not have been ready for it."
The problem for Santa Fe during both Friday's pool play and in the trophy match Saturday was hitting. The Lady Chiefs had more attack errors than kills in three of four matches, for a cumulative minus-.024 percentage.
"We had games in which we missed several shots," Thomas said. "At this stage of the year, that can't happen."
Santa Fe lost its first preliminary contest to Eminence, 25-15, 25-20, hitting only minus-.021 percent compared to the Redwings' .130 -- led by 13 kills split between senior Caitlin Rutledge and freshman Jacy Lashley.
Senior Kyle Wagner topped the Lady Chiefs with five kills, but the defense played tough -- senior Joci Russell coming up with 19 digs and junior Lauren Aversman with 11.
"We pride ourselves on defense," Thomas said. "We did that every game."
Senior Laura McMullin put down 11 shots and made three blocks during a 25-17, 25-14 victory by Sacred Heart (31-6-4), which defended its state title the next day with a 21-25, 25-22, 25-13 decision over Eminence (37-4-2).
Sophomore Molly Sander had seven kills and eight assists and Russell made 13 saves for Santa Fe.
Then came Bell City, which would defeat the Lady Chiefs twice: 25-20, 25-20 in the last pool contest and 25-20, 25-13 during Saturday's third-place match.
The first game of the finale was close through the early stages, with the teams tied 10 times, Aversman and Russell each putting down a pair of shots to force a 16-16 deadlock. The Lady Cubs pulled ahead when a hit which landed a foot outside the back line was ruled in by the linesman.
Then Bell City turned to its main weapon, freshman Jasmine Johnson, a 5-foot-6 jumping jack. She blasted five shots, including four in a row, as the Lady Cubs went on a 9-0 run -- winning when senior Codie Lancaster rejected an attack at the net.
Johnson went to work immediately in the second set, with four kills as Bell City opened up a 6-1 lead. Russell, Aversman and senior Lauren Malan found the floor and Russell aced to close the margin slightly at 11-7, but Santa Fe couldn't get closer as the Lady Cubs (28-5-3) went back to Johnson for three more spikes during an eight-point run to set up match point.
"We had a hard time getting our blocks set up in front of" Johnson, who wound up with 17 kills, according to Thomas. "Their setter" -- Lancaster, with 17 assists -- "was holding the ball in her hands for a long time, which made it hard for our middle blockers."
Wagner had four kills and Aversman and Russell three each for the Lady Chiefs.
For the meet, senior Chelsea Gieselman had 31 assists to pace Santa Fe, while Russell recorded 60 digs. However, with only two players who had participated in the 2006 championship match, it was an overwhelming experience for the Lady Chiefs (27-9-3).
"We came out scared and didn't play the way we have the last two weeks," Thomas said, noting it wasn't due to a lack of effort. "We competed to the end and didn't give up."
Still, this squad made its imprint on Santa Fe tradition, claiming titles for both the I-70 Conference Tournament -- for the seventh year in a row -- and regular season and reaching the Final Four for the 16th time since 1979.
"It's huge for these girls," Thomas declared, choking back tears after saying goodbye to six seniors, four of them starters. "They've worked so incredibly hard."