Becky Schneider has been building to this point.
Two seasons ago, a trio of freshmen helped Clarkson/Leigh post an 11-19 record, the Patriots’ best mark since Schneider’s first season as the team's head coach in 2012.
Now, Hannah Kasik, Kaegan Held and Beth Wiese are part of a seven-player junior class that led Clarkson/Leigh (25-9) to the state volleyball tournament for the first time since the schools formed a co-op in 2011.
“We’ve been eyeing this breakthrough,” said Schneider. “(Making state) has always been a goal, but they really felt it from the beginning this year."
Prior to the co-op, Leigh High School hadn’t qualified for state since 2005 and Clarkson High School last made it to state in 1989.
With Thursday’s four-set win over Lourdes Central Catholic in the D1-2 district title match in Wahoo, those droughts were broken.
The seven juniors have experienced success on the volleyball court since junior high. Schneider didn’t expect anything different once they got to high school.
“They have what it takes,” she said. “They know each other and what it takes on and off the court and everybody else has jumped on board.”
While Kasik went down midseason with an injury, the other six juniors are either starters or rotational players. Wiese, Halee Steffensmeier and Paige Moore have appeared in every set this season for the Patriots.
Moore and Wiese, both outside hitters, are second and third on the team with 157 and 156 kills, respectively.
Senior Sydney Folken leads the team with 208 kills.
Sophomore Ashlynn Novotny has stepped up since Kasik went down, with 117 of her 141 kills coming in the 17 matches without Kasik.
With so many weapons, teams have trouble slowing down the Patriots’ attack.
“It makes us a huge threat,” Schneider said. “If they shut down one girl, we have others who can step up. It’s hard to stop.”
Clarkson/Leigh, No. 6 in the Class D-1 tournament, will need all its weapons at their best Thursday against No. 3 Bruning-Davenport/Shickley (26-5) at Lincoln East High School.
“They’re one of the top dogs in Class D-1,” Schneider said. “It’s going to be a tough match.”
While Clarkson/Leigh is a relative newcomer at the state tournament, Humphrey St. Francis is no stranger to the big stage. In his 30th season, Flyers’ head coach Dean Korus led the team back to Lincoln for the 21st time in school history, 18 times coming under Korus.
Class D-2, No. 4 St. Francis (25-5) expects to be there in early November.
“That’s one of the goals we set at the beginning of every year,” Korus said.
Coming off an 18-13 season when St. Francis came up short of that goal, Korus knew he had a team capable of making a run to state. With his top hitters coming back this year, he just had one big question mark at setter, where the Flyers lost two-year starter Bailey Klassen.
Senior Bridget McPhillips took on the role and ran with it.
“Bridget McPhillips has come in and done a superior job for us and put it all together,” Korus said.
Having Logan Wemhoff as a teammate will help any setter. Prior to the season, Korus called the senior the team’s “go-to” player. The outside hitter leads the team in kills with 316 and aces with 40. Wemhoff is also second on the team with 296 digs and 30 blocks.
But she’s hardly alone.
Junior Tara Foltz has 180 kills this season and sophomore Caitlin Jarosz has 166, giving the Flyers three strong hitters. That makes it more difficult for teams to focus solely on taking Wemhoff out of the match.
“The first part of the season, we depended on Logan quite a bit to finish games off for us. Now we have three or four hitters that can come and deliver the ball. It takes the pressure off of Logan,” Korus said. “We’ve gotten more balanced as the season has progressed.”
If opponents focus too much attention on Wemhoff, Korus is confident in Foltz and Jarosz to take advantage of better looks.
The Flyers’ schedule has them prepared to face the top teams in Class D-2. Despite having not played any of the state-qualifying teams in its class, St. Francis has faced the top two teams in Class C-2 and the only undefeated teams left in the state in Hartington Cedar Catholic and Nebraska Christian.
You take your licks from them, but hopefully learn something along the way.
“It really solidified our hitters and our will to win,” Korus said. “We know we can play against those caliber of teams.”
The Flyers open state tournament play Thursday against No. 5 Red Cloud (28-5) at Lincoln Northeast High School. Korus likes the matchup, as long as his team can get around the Warriors’ middle blockers — 6-foot-2 Mary Nibbe and 6-foot-1 Morgan Nibbe.
“We’ll have to speed up our offense and push the ball out to the antennas and mix it up a little more,” he said.