“When I interviewed, they told me I had some pretty good girls.”
That’s what Jill Scott remembers being told when she took over the Ulysses High School volleyball program three years ago.
Scott knew she’d have some good athletes in the system. Her passion for the sport blended well with those girls as the Tigers qualified for the state tournament for the first time in 25 years and brought-home the school's first-ever trophy for their fourth-place finish.
“These girls, they amaze me on a daily basis,” Scott said.
Those girls learned to run a faster-paced offense that Scott wanted to run in her previous school, Stanton County.
“This year, by leaps and bounds, we made significant improvements in our ability to run that faster-paced offense, and that helped us out a lot,” she said.
It was what the team needed as they advanced to post-season play against opponents who already did that.
“We had to be able to do some of those things to put us in the place we wanted to be. We’d worked towards it the past couple of years, but this year we really got into a groove and saw the benefits of having that in our back pocket when we needed it,” Scott said.
Ulysses compiled a 30-10 record, including an undefeated regular league season (Great West Activities Conference) and sweeping through the league tournament.
The turnaround this year came a year or two sooner than Scott had expected it would, but given the talent she had and the dedication of her team, 2017 did not surprise her.
A year ago, the Tigers defeated Buhler in round one of sub-state but fell to longtime nemesis McPherson, whom Scott described as “just a touch better than us,” in the championship game of sub-state, one step away from the state tournament.
“But having that confidence (from the successful season), made all the difference this year,” she said.
Getting the first-round win last season after years of futility planted a feeling in her team that 2017 would be the year for them, Scott said.
“We put a lot of time in this summer to build on some things and get things going in the right direction coming in so that we could hit the ground running when we started in August,” she said. “We wanted to say from the get-go that this was our goal: we want to get to the state tournament.”
One of the biggest challenges the previous two seasons had been overcoming mental toughness, Scott said. The Tigers improved greatly in that area, and that turned what could have been just a good team into a great team.
“They were able to put the mistakes behind them and move on a lot better than they had,” she said.
Against Colby in the league tournament, her team lost a sizable first-set lead and dropped the opening set. But the Tigers of the past, who would have probably lost that match, turned into the Tigers she thought they could be, Scott said, and won.
“It was three tough, hard-fought sets, but that was my first inclination of, ‘Okay, we’ve got this figured out,’” she explained.
That transferred into the opening round of sub-state at home, where Ulysses defeated Hays in three sets to move into the title match against McPherson
“We were just ready to go. Bring on McPherson — right here, right now, our home crowd, our fans,” Scott said. “They’re not going to beat us here. This is our house. They just came out and played like I’ve never seen them play before.”
The week leading up to state seemed surreal, Scott said. Winning that title match in two sets meant another week of practice because it was leading to a state tournament for the first time in a quarter century.
“That’s something that still gives me the chills,” she said, shivering with the memory of that week in late October.
Walking into the Tony’s Pizza Event Center in Salina was thrilling, too, Scott said, remembering how her girls took the court with teams used to being there.
“But our girls didn’t let it get to them,” she said. “They had their moment of ‘we’re here and this is really cool,’ but it wasn’t like they stepped on the court and got gun shy.”
Quite the opposite. Ulysses took care of business and won the first two matches in pool play, losing the third match of the night in a tight contest.
But it also meant that, for the first time in school history, the Tigers were playing the next day.
The ride ended that next day with two losses, but it was further than the school had ever been, and it meant taking home hardware.
“I’m really proud of them,” Scott said. “We had five seniors on the team. For them to have that experience as their going away party isn’t the high you’d like to end on, but it’s still saying, ‘we’re bringing home hardware.’ That’s something nobody can take away from them.”
That hardware will find a way into a display case in their cafeteria, Scott said, along with other reminders of this season — the signed volleyball from sub-state, an etched plaque created by the shop teacher to commemorate their league tournament title.
“We’re going to deck it out with stuff,” Scott said. “It’s one of the coolest things I’ve ever experienced as a coach, for sure.”