Preps notebook: Despite some setbacks, FSHS volleyball returns to state tournament to make history

photo by: Courtesy photo from FSHS

Free State's volleyball team with a sub-state championship plaque Saturday night at Olathe West High School. The Firebirds earned a three-set win over Lawrence High in the sub-state championship, advancing to the state tournament for the second year in a row.

When Free State’s volleyball team won a substate title and a state tournament berth on Saturday, senior Jani McAlister-Harms wasn’t shy about how much the game meant to her — in fact, she cheered so loudly for her teammates that she lost her voice.

She had good reasons to be excited about the thrilling three-set win over Lawrence High in the substate championship at Olathe West.

As one of the team’s two seniors, McAlister-Harms was eager for the chance to wrap up her high school career on a high note. Her team, which started the year 0-4, had to overcome a lot of adversity to get there. And the chance to make history made it that much sweeter — it was the first time Free State had ever won two substate titles back to back.

“I’ve honestly never really wanted anything more in my life,” McAlister-Harms said on Monday, her voice still not quite fully recovered. “You just don’t think this kind of stuff is possible during these really dark times. It meant a lot because it was one of the happiest moments that I’ve felt since quarantine.”

Because of COVID-19 safety guidelines, the state volleyball tournament will look a bit different this year. There will be no pool play, and quarterfinal matchups will be played at separate locations, with the four winners advancing to the state tournament site later in the week.

Free State (18-13) will travel to Olathe Northwest (26-0) at 6 p.m. Tuesday for the Class 6A quarterfinals. It will be a five-set match, while the winner will advance to the semifinals at Tony’s Pizza Events Center in Salina on Friday.

Regardless of what happens this week, however, the Firebirds are proud of their historic season.

“It means the world to me,” said Grace Branson, the team’s other senior. “This was our goal since day one of practice. We wanted to make history. We wanted to win substate and go right back out there to state and just show them what we were capable of.”

While getting back to state might have been the Firebirds’ goal from the start, it didn’t always look achievable.

The Firebirds had plenty of setbacks, starting from the pandemic-adjusted offseason. ­The players were forced to do drills and conditioning outside on a soccer field for much of the summer, and they didn’t get to practice indoors until the very first day of tryouts.

Even when the Firebirds got on the court, they had to deal with some growing pains after replacing nine seniors from last year’s squad. FSHS suffered two-set losses to Lawrence, Seaman, St. James Academy and St. Thomas Aquinas to start the season, and a couple of players also had to go into quarantine early in the year.

But the Firebirds bounced back quickly, winning five consecutive matches before facing one of the biggest challenges of the season: a home triangular against Manhattan High and Washburn Rural (a team ranked No. 1 in Class 6A at the time) on senior night. Free State notched two-set wins against both of those programs.

“It was so amazing,” McAlister-Harms said. “I think that was when we realized this is what we want and that was what we needed to pull through. Especially since it was senior night, I think they made it clear that we were all playing for each other.”

Even in the substate championship, the Firebirds had to erase multiple late deficits against the Lions, including a four-point hole (20-16) in the final set, before they were able to earn their hardware.

“We made it happen,” said second-year head coach Jayme Savage. “(This) is the evolution of how to overcome adversity and how to bounce back from setbacks and do it together as a team.”

When everybody is on the same page and understands their roles, the Firebirds are a potent team.

Branson and sophomores Aubrey Duncan and Sawyer Thomsen are all forces around the net, with more than 100 kills apiece this season. Sophomore Rylee Unruh is the catalyst of the offense with over 550 assists, and junior Madison Beeley has about 200 digs.

“The key to making this happen was our ability to work as a team,” Branson said. “It just shows how (this) program can come together during a tough time and put together a team to show them what we are capable of and accomplish our dreams.”

Free State has already faced Olathe Northwest once this year, losing 2-1 on the road on Sept. 17. The Firebirds won the second set by a 27-25 margin, but dropped the first set (25-10) and the third set (25-17).

“The only thing I can take (from that match) is to eliminate unforced errors,” Savage said. “If we can harness our mental toughness and can be patient — while executing those sound fundamentals — we should be in pretty good shape.”

PLHS volleyball headed to state meet for first time in 25 years

Perry-Lecompton volleyball will also be competing during the final week of the season, and it’s a significant accomplishment for the program.

The Kaws (23-16) will host Sabetha (35-1) in the Class 3A quarterfinals at 6 p.m. Tuesday after winning their substate bracket this past weekend. It marks the first time since 1995 that PLHS will be competing in the state volleyball tournament.

Plenty of players have been responsible for Perry-Lecompton’s success during head coach Kyle Billings’ first season at the helm. Junior Katy Hurd paces the team with 253 kills in 80 sets played, according to the PLHS team page on Maxpreps.

Junior Allyson Baker isn’t far behind Hurd, posting 211 kills this year. Taylor Damme and Campbell Keller have 134 and 109 kills, respectively, so far this season.

Sophomore Ella Besler has a team-high 370 assists to help get the offense going, and sophomore Brooke Metcalfe has recorded 233 assists.

Yet where Perry-Lecompton really has succeeded is defending the net. Hurd has 161 blocks to lead the team in that category, while Damme comes in No. 2 on the squad with 116 blocks. According to Billings, they are the top two performers in blocks in any high school competition class in the eastern Kansas area.

Free State’s gymnastics team keeps winning

Free State’s gymnastics team added another first-place finish to its resume during Saturday’s 13-team meet hosted by Shawnee Mission North. The Firebirds scored 106.450 points as a team, which was enough to edge out runner-up Olathe North’s mark of 103.100.

As has been the case all year, Free State senior Talia Gay earned the top spot in the all-around rankings. She finished first in vault and bar and took second in floor and beam, scoring 37.600 points.

Kenzie Vaughn took fourth in all-around by posting a total score of 35.150. Vaughn was third in bar and fourth in beam on her way to a top-five finish. Ellie Vickers tallied seventh in the bar event. Chaney Finkeldei finished ninth in bar and 10th in floor.

Lawrence High placed fifth as a team in the same event with a score of 97.400. Paris Spotted Tail was third in all-around with a mark of 35.600 points. Spotted Tail finished in a tie for first with Gay in vault. She also won floor and placed third in beam as an individual.

Shawnee Mission North Invite

Saturday at SM South

Team scores: 1. Free State 106.450; 2. Olathe North 103.100; 3. Olathe West 102.950; 4. Newton 98.760; 5. Lawrence 97.400; 6. Olathe East 95.350; 7. SM Northwest 95.100; 8. SM East 94.950; 9. SM North 89.800; 10. SM South 87.550; 11. Emporia 86.500; 12. Olathe South 69.650; 13. Olathe NW 57.050.

FSHS results (top-20): Talia Gay — first in vault (9.500), first in bar (9.400), second in beam (9.350), second in floor (9.350), first in all-around (37.600); Kenzie Vaugh — 12th in ault (8.600), third in bar (8.700); fourth in beam (9.200); ninth in floor (8.650); fourth in all-around (35.150); Ellie Vickers — 12th in vault (8.600), seventh in bar (8.100), 11th in floor (8.550); Ashley Mai — 19th in vault (8.500); Chaney Finkeldei — ninth in bar (7.800), 18th in beam (8.150), 10th in floor (8.600); Avery Qualseth — 17th in bar (7.400); Zoe Williams — 18th in vault (8.550), 15th in beam (8.400).

LHS results (top-20): Paris Spotted Tail — first in vault (9.500), 16th in bar (7.450), third in beam (9.250), first in floor (9.400), third in all-around (35.600); Beth Brandt — 19th in vault (8.500), 17th in floor (8.400), 18th in all-around (31.850).


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