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Over the hump, Doniphan West volleyball building confidence, momentum in 9-0 start / North Central Kansas standouts

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By Brent Maycock – KSHSAA Covered

When Andrea Keller got back into coaching volleyball at Doniphan West at the start of the 2018 season, she admitted she “was a little bit terrified.”

It had nothing to do with the state of the Mustang program, though the state of the program was in some ways a bit scary. Doniphan West was coming off a 6-24 season in 2017 and a 2-33 season in 2016 and hadn’t had a winning season in more than a decade.

Instead, the fear was more on her end – her previous coaching stint being at the college level as head coach at Highland Community College from 2004-10.

“I was terrified of going from the college level to the high school level, especially being out of it for the time I was,” Keller said. “I’m pretty transparent about things and I wasn’t real aware of ability levels and volleyball IQ. I had to kind of re-invent myself as a coach, and I’m still doing that every year.”

She’s also re-inventing Doniphan West’s program with the Mustangs showing improvement each season under her watch. After going 8-26 in her first season, West improved to 11-23 in 2019, 16-19 in 2020 and then posted its first winning season since 2007 last year in a 25-12 campaign.

This season, the Mustangs are off to their best start in a long time. After sweeping Blue Valley-Randolph and Onaga on Tuesday, Doniphan West is 9-0.

“We’ve definitely grown through the years,” Keller said. “D-West has definitely been known more as a basketball school and so it’s been fun for these girls to look around and go, ‘Wait a minute, we’re a volleyball school now, too.’ Mix in track and cross country and we’ve had a really solid group of girls these last several years.

“It’s definitely taken some time, and taken a lot of devotion in working them into a volleyball mindset and growing their love for the game. But it’s been fun these last couple years seeing things come together.

“Last year, we got over the hump. I think the girls started looking at each other and thinking they could do something special. We beat the teams we were supposed to beat and were so close in our losses. We were just right there.”

West lost two key seniors off last year’s breakthrough squad – middle hitter Jaiden Taylor and emotional leader Sydney Smith – with Taylor a first-team All-Twin Valley League performer after ranking second on the team in kills with 221. But enough pieces returned that Keller and the Mustangs were optimistic they could carry the momentum of last year over into this season.

“They were just tremendous leaders who were starters all four years of their high school careers,” Keller said. “But I knew we had potential in this group and it was waiting to see how we’d put it all together. We’re a small group with just seven primary players in our rotation, but they really just come together and are clicking. We still have a long way to go and have more potential to achieve, and they know that, but thus far they’ve maybe exceeded my expectations a bit in their firepower.”

Keller knew what she had in returning senior Avery Weathersbee, a first-team all-leaguer who led the team in kills last year with 224. And there were known commodities in senior Claire Cole and junior Malaina Whetstine, each of whom topped 100 kills last year, and senior setter Kyra Johnson, who had 602 assists last year.

But the emergence of sophomore Katie Johnson has been a huge lift for the Mustangs. After playing in roughly just half of West’s matches last year, Johnson has become a difference-maker this year, leading the team with 80 kills.

“She’s a pretty laid back kid and we’re working on pushing her to play so much more aggressively,” Keller said. “We’re trying to bring that out in her because I don’t think she fully realizes the scope of how much potential she has. The Centralia match really brought that out in her. She didn’t dominate the whole match, but she had periods where she took over. If we can get her to turn it on all the time like that, she can’t be stopped from an offensive standpoint.”

While Katie Johnson has shined, the key to the Mustangs’ early success has been their balance. Six players have at least 19 kills in the 20 sets the team has played. Weathersbee is behind Johnson with 55 kills, while Whetstine has 49 and Cole and Kyra Johnson each have 23. Johnson and Cole have split setting duties with Johnson recording 152 assists and Cole 58.

“That is truly the greatest strength of this team, their versatility,” Keller said. “We’ve got players who can swing from the outside, middle and right side very consistently. I’ve got setters that can attack the ball so we can mix up the offense and run a 5-1 or 6-2, which is definitely a coach’s dream. We’re not very big, but we’re strong and we’re quick and we’re trying to capitalize on that by moving the ball to different spots.”

Included in this year’s 9-0 start was a huge three-set win over perennial TVL and state power Centralia. The Mustangs dropped the first set 27-25 before taking 25-18, 25-22 wins in the next two.

West had beaten Centralia in 2020 in the TVL Tournament – a win Keller called a bit of a fluke – but this year’s victory had a different feel to it. It also was a small measure of revenge for Centralia ending the Mustangs’ season last year with a grueling 29-27, 29-27 match in the sub-state championship.

“Last year we got over the hump, but this year it seems like we’re over the hump and moving forward,” Keller said. “We know we’ve still got a long way to go and haven’t peaked yet. But from a coaching standpoint, the girls are getting it and can keep it rolling.”

Doniphan West’s undefeated start will get a huge test this weekend at the Hiawatha Invitational. In addition to tourney host Hiawatha – last year’s Big Seven League champion – Centralia and Class 2A No. 5 Jefferson County North are also in the field.

The Mustangs will be without starter Taygen Reno, who leads the team in digs with 65.

“We’re definitely going to be tested and we know that,” Keller said. “I’m looking forward to seeing how we rise to the challenge. When you’re without a starter, there’s hesitation but we’ve got other girls ready to step up and we’ll have to re-do some things with our offense and defense and we’re working through that this week.”

  • Nemaha Central bounced back from its Big Seven League loss to Royal Valley by taking the title at its home invitational last weekend. The Thunder went 4-0 in pool play, all straight-set wins, and then topped rival Sabetha 26-24, 25-15 in the semifinals before beating the NEK Nighthawks 25-7, 25-21 in the championship match. The Thunder improved to 15-1 overall.
  • Jackson Heights won the title at the Frankfort Invitational, dominating the six-team round-robin tourney. The Cobras not only didn’t drop a set but also didn’t allow any opponent to score more than 19 points in a set. Heights improved to 10-1 overall, the lone loss coming in the season opener to Atchison County.

EMPORIA GOLFERS CONTINUE RECORD-SETTING WAYS

In its first girls’ golf tournament of the year, Emporia made a bit of history. The Spartans’ team total of 335 broke the school record for a tournament team score, doing it on their home course.

Last week, the Spartans proved it wasn’t just course familiarity that led to the record score. At the Seaman Invitational at Village Greens Golf Course, Emporia demolished its week-old record.

Led by a 2-3 finish from Olivia and Avary Eckert, Emporia posted four scores of 87 or better and finished with a record-setting 321 that gave the Spartans an 11-stroke win over Seaman. Olivia Eckert shot a 73 to beat twin sister Avary by one shot, while Ella Fessler and Elise Eckert each turned in 87s.

Seaman’s Lois Deeter won her second individual title of the year, shooting a 3-under 69.

Emporia added its third win of the season on Tuesday at the Newton Invitational with a 175 total at the 9-hole tourney to beat Maize South by 14 shots. Olivia Eckert led the way with the first individual title of her career, shooting a 36 to match Andover’s Regan Dusenbery for the low round. Elise Eckert was ninth with a 45 while Avary Eckert and Peyton Owens each added 47s.

  • Wamego freshman Addison Douglass is proving to be an impact addition for the defending 4A state champions. After being the Red Raiders’ low scorer at the Washburn Rural Great Plains Invitational, Douglass followed up with a pair of tournament victories to lead the Red Raiders to team titles as well.

Douglass shot a 37 to lead a 1-2-3-4 Wamego finish at the Red Raiders’ home tournament, topping teammates Ashten Pierson and Kirby McKee by two shots for the title. She then fired another 37 to win the Hayden Invitational by two shots over Manhattan’s Kaitlyn Lagabed as Wamego topped Manhattan by seven shots for the team crown with a 162.

  • Silver Lake’s Taylor Zordel took the title at the Santa Fe Trail Invitational, shooting a 43 to win by three shots over Council Grove’s Ally Hower and Ottawa’s Aubrey Vasquez. The Eagles’ 202 gave them the team title by 23 shots over Osage City.

SEAMAN FRESHMAN MILLER MAKING EARLY NOISE

Coming off a fourth-place finish at last year’s Class 5A state meet and returning all but one runner off that state squad, Seaman entered the 2022 season with pretty high hopes.

Expectations might ramp up even more if varsity newcomer Ryin Miller keeps up her hot early start. The Viking freshman was expected to be an impact addition this season and she’s been just that.

After finishing third at the Manhattan Invitational to start the season, Miller notched her first career victory at last Saturday’s Joe Schrag Invitational. Miller cut more than a minute off her time at Manhattan, winning in 19 minutes, 1.22 seconds – 29 seconds ahead of runner-up finisher Ella Cronhardt of Lee’s Summit West (Mo.).

Seaman placed six runners in the top 11 to run away with the team title. Bethany Druse and Stella Appelhanz went 3-4 and Anna Becker, Savannah Sampson and Leah Spurlock finished 9-10-11.

Topeka West’s Lenny Njoroge, returning after missing last season with a broken foot, finished second in the boys race to Isaac Rivera of Lincoln Prep (Mo.). Njoroge clocked a time of 15:24.61 that was a personal best by more than 30 seconds.

  • A strong favorite to be a top contender for the Class 3A state title this season, Marysville’s Silas Miller picked up a big early-season win at Wamego last Saturday. In tough conditions, Miller won the Class 3-2-1A race in 16:41.10, beating Ell-Saline’s Garrison Zerger by 17 seconds.
  • Wabaunsee’s Payton Wurtz ran away with the title in the girls’ 3-2-1A race at Wamego, wining in 19:52.40, 41 seconds ahead of Christ Prep’s Adelaide Hydeman.
  • Tonganoxie’s Eli Gilmore claimed the title in the boys’ 4A race at Wamego, beating Southeast of Saline’s Damion Jackson by 13 seconds in 16:23.0.
  • Junction City’s Lorna Rae Pierce won the girls’ title at the Emporia Invitational, winning in 19:18.10.
  • Hiawatha’s Camden Bachman and Felix McCartney went 1-2 at the Holton Invitational, but Abilene took the team title on the strength of a 4-5-6 finish from Triston Cottone, Grant Waite and Dayton Wuthnow. Abilene’s Eden Bathurst won the girls race by more than a minute in 21:31.61.
  • Olpe freshman Lillian Skalsky won her second race of the season, taking the title at the Lyndon Invitational. Skalsky beat runner-up Jordyn Picolet of Council Grove by more than a minute in 21:42.30. Council Grove’ Kodi Downes took the boys’ title in 16:55.60.

BRADSTREET OFF TO HOT START FOR RURAL SOCCER

As a complementary scorer to Class 6A forward of the year Porter Schafersman last year, Ethan Bradstreet still racked up 17 goals in helping Washburn Rural to a runner-up finish in Class 6A.

With Schafersman gone via graduation, Bradstreet has stepped into the main scorer’s role for the Junior Blues this season. And he’s filled it well.

In Rural’s 5-0 win over De Soto last Thursday, Bradstreet pounded home four goals. It was his second four-goal game of the season and through five games, Bradstreet already has 13 goals, getting at least one in every game.

HAYDEN’S ZULUETA STAYS PERFECT

After capturing the title at the prestigious Wichita Collegiate Tournament of Champions to start the season, Hayden sophomore Ainzley Zulueta hasn’t slowed down. She cruised to the title at the Hayden Invitational on Sept. 6, going 3-0 and dropping just four games.

At Wednesday’s Baldwin Invitational, Zulueta went 5-0 and dropped just two games in improving to 12-0.

Teammates Emily Sheetz and Lauren Sandstrom also were a perfect 5-0 at Baldwin to take the doubles title, losing only 10 games on the day. The closest match was an 8-5 win over Independence sisters Elizabeth and Hannah Kippenberger. Sandstrom and Sheetz are 15-1 this season.

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Derek Nester
Derek Nesterhttps://sunflowerstateradio.com
Derek Nester was born and raised in Blue Rapids and graduated from Valley Heights High School in 2000. He attended Cowley College in Arkansas City and Johnson County Community College in Overland Park studying Journalism & Media Communications. In 2002 Derek joined Taylor Communications, Inc. in Salina, Kansas working in digital media for 550 AM KFRM and 100.9 FM KCLY. Following that stop, he joined Dierking Communications, Inc. stations KNDY AM & FM as a board operator and fill-in sports play-by-play announcer. Starting in 2005 Derek joined the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network as a Studio Coordinator at 101 The Fox in Kansas City, a role he would serve for 15 years culminating in the Super Bowl LIV Championship game broadcast. In 2021 he moved to Audacy, formerly known as Entercom Communications, Inc. and 106.5 The Wolf and 610 Sports Radio, the new flagship stations of the Kansas City Chiefs Radio Network, the largest radio network in the NFL. Through all of this, Derek continues to serve as the Digital Media Director for Sunflower State Radio, the digital and social media operations of Dierking Communications, Inc. and the 6 radio stations it owns and operates across Kansas.

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