TOPEKA — For the Lawrence High volleyball team, the difference between elimination and advancing to today's state semifinals might have come down to a single server.
With the eighth-seeded Lions already down a match after a straight-sets loss to No. 1 Goddard to open the tournament, LHS needed victories against No. 4 Blue Valley West and No. 5 Dodge City to earn a spot in the final four in the Expocentre.
LHS responded to the pressure of a do-or-die match with an amazing first set. Two weeks ago, the Lions were bullied by Blue Valley West in Emporia, but, on Friday, the Lions did the bullying. LHS jumped out of the gate with the lead and held it most of the way. Junior Jasmyn Turner and sophomore Lillian Schonewise were ferocious at the net, ripping kill after kill at the Jaguars and forcing BVW to play back on its heels. Sophomore Mary Coldsnow got in on the act midway through the match, and LHS opened a 14-8 lead. West bounced back immediately and tied the score at 17, but senior captain Tayler Tolefree responded with a kill to put the Lions back on top.
Playing some of its best volleyball of the season, LHS built a 22-18 lead and appeared to be on its way to a first-set victory. But that's when Blue Valley West senior Caitlin Donahue stepped back to serve. With a high toss and a rocket launch, Donahue sent seven straight serves the Lions' way. LHS mishandled every one of them. As the lead disappeared and the aces mounted, it was obvious that LHS tightened up and began to feel the pressure.
"She's an amazing player, and she has an incredible serve," Schonewise said. "That was really hard to see that game end that way."
Donahue, who graced the cover of the KSHSAA state tournament program, served seven straight points to give the Jaguars a 25-22 victory in the opening set. She continued her roll in the second set and helped lead Blue Valley West to a 25-16 victory there.
The loss ended the Lions' hopes of advancing to today and set up a battle for pride with winless Dodge City.
Despite jumping out to a first-set lead of 7-1 and a second-set lead of 8-1, the Lions fell to the Demons in straight sets, losing 25-21 and 26-24.
"It was really tough to find the energy to get up for that last match," LHS coach Stephanie Magnuson said. "But the girls played hard and they competed and that's all I can ask of them."
To the Lions' credit, they expected more of themselves.
Despite entering the tournament as the lowest seed and with a 9-26 record, the LHS players truly believed they were going to make a run at state. For parts of the morning, they played like it.
LHS controlled the pace of play throughout the match with Blue Valley West and showed enough against Dodge City to conclude that they would have won if the match had meant something.
"There were spurts where we were the team that beat Free State and won sub-state," Tolefree said. "But there were spurts where we were the old team, too. But it was good to get here. It was good for the underclassmen to see what it's all about. And it was definitely good to end here so the rest of the team could see what the ultimate goal is."
According to Magnuson, it wasn't the surroundings or familiarity with the floor that was the most valuable lesson her team brought home from the school's 28th appearance at state, a number that puts them second all-time in Kansas.
"We do belong here, and we came here to win," Magnuson said. "But I think they learned that you have to come out ready to play right away at state and you have to play every point of the day. You can't take points off."
The three losses put the Lions' final record at 9-29 and ended the careers of seven seniors. Tolefree, Hillary Wehmeyer, Katlyn Green, Grace Hildenbrand, Maddy Orth, Morgan Harris and Caitlin Fisher played their final matches as Lions on Friday. But all seven took pride in knowing that the future is bright for LHS. The team returns five regulars from its rotation next season.
"Now that we've been here, we plan on coming back every year," Magnuson added.