When the Garden City High School volleyball team snapped a 10-year drought of qualifying for the Class 6A state tournament in 2015, the Buffs were looking to make a strong showing in Topeka.
That trip ended after the opening day of pool play in which the eight teams are divided into two groups of four, each playing a round-robin, with the top two finishers in both advancing to the Saturday semis, consolation and championship matches.
The Buffs went 1-2 that year, beating Wichita Northwest for their lone victory. Losses came to eastern Kansas powers Blue Valley North and Olathe Northwest.
Fast forward to 2016, and the Buffs once again qualified for state, only to have the same results repeated — a victory over Wichita Northwest, with losses to Manhattan and Olathe Northwest, the eventual champion.
Friday, the Buffs will get their third straight opportunity to advance to day two of the state tournament when they open pool play at 3:30 p.m. as the No. 6 overall seed with a season mark of 27-8.
They will take on No. 3 seed Blue Valley West (33-5) and then later follow with matches against Topeka-Washburn Rural (6:30 p.m., No. 2, 35-5) and conclude at 7:30 p.m. against Lawrence High (7:30 p.m., No. 7, 26-11).
First-year head coach Trista Bailey is acutely aware of the past results, and how tough it has been for the Buffs to break through the glass ceiling to make it to the final day, something that hasn’t been done since the 1990s.
“Our schedule was tough this season, and it was done to prepare us for this type of competition we’ll see,” Bailey said Wednesday. “I think that some of the girls, the seniors, this is the third year and we won’t have the deer-in-the-headlights look when we step on the court.”
With just three seniors on the roster — Lindsey Richmeier, Adisyn Swan and Josie Calzonetti — the Buffs have put together a mix of upper-class leaders with some talented underclassmen.
“I think the growth of those seniors has been one of the big reasons for our success,” Bailey said. “They’ve taken the younger ones under their wings and provided great leadership.”
When Bailey was hired in March, and then began summer off-season workouts, she wasn’t sure what the team identity would actually look like.
“First, I think we got them out of their comfort zone — teaching them a lot of new things,” Bailey said. “The practices have been super competitive, but there’s no question that our schedule has been one of the reasons we’re going with more confidence than in the past.”
The schedule. Certainly it proves Bailey’s point about being tough. As in tough as nails.
Of the eight regular-season losses suffered, six of those have come against teams that will be competing Friday in four different state tournaments.
While the Buffs are just 3-6 overall in those matches against some of the elite teams of Kansas, Bailey insists that some of those losses came early in the season when her team was still searching for the right chemistry.
The season opener was against Class 5A power Newton on the Railers’ home floor. The second week of September it was a pair of setbacks to 5A qualifiers Bishop Carroll and Andover at the Valley Center Invitational.
A win over Class 4A-I qualifier Ulysses, something that would occur a second time in early October, interrupted the tough losses. A trip to the Maize tourney in mid-September saw them beat Hutchinson (state qualifier in Wichita as well), with two losses to 5A Maize, a team that lost to 5A qualifier Andover in the sub-state championship this past weekend, and then a straight-set loss to Blue Valley West, the same team they will see in Friday’s pool play.
A week later at the Topeka Seaman Invitational, they suffered losses to defending 4A-II state champ Topeka Hayden (also qualified again) and Manhattan (in the opposite pool Friday).
At 15-8 heading into late September, the Buffs then reeled off 12 straight wins, four of those in winning the Western Athletic Conference for the seventh straight season. In that streak, they have lost only two sets.
“I feel like we’re as fully prepared as we can be,” Bailey said.
Sophomores Remi Vargas and Kelbi Richter lead the team in service aces with 34 and 33, respectively (Calzonetti a close third with 32), and the two also are among the top three in serve percentage at 98.0 and 93.9 (sophomore Reagan Karlin sits between at 95.9.
Karlin easily leads the kills category with 353 with Swan adistant second with 178 and junior Taylor Terpstra with 160. Vargas has amassed 764 assists while the back row group of of Richmeier (366), Karlin (267), Richter (207) and Vargas (175) have balanced out the digs on the defensive side.
Bailey believes her team’s season-long growth has resulted in a more balanced offensive attack while seeing improvement in serve/receive and defense.
“We’re not the same team we were even a few weeks ago,” Bailey said. “I think since the Manhattan match, we’ve shown great improvement.”
In Blue Valley West, Washburn Rural and Lawrence, the Buffs will see three different styles of play, Bailey said.
Should the Buffs earn one of the top two spots from pool play, they would play one of the two teams from the opposite pool in Saturday’s 2 p.m. semifinal, with consolation and championship matches to follow.