There was something off about Humphrey St. Francis outside hitter Caitlin Jarosz during a match earlier this season.
Following 251 kills in 29 matches last season, an average of nearly nine per match, the senior had reached double digits just once in the first five matches of the year. For a team intent on finding its way to the state tournament, that just wouldn't do.
If the Flyers intended to take one more step a year after falling in the district title match, St. Francis needed its top offensive weapon to be, well, its top offensive weapon.
Jarosz had 12 kills four nights earlier in a four-set loss to Mead but had just six during a five-set win over Fullerton. Though the Flyers found a way to win, head coach Dean Korus brought Jarosz to the bench several times and shared a simple message.
"I got taken out a couple of times. After that, I kind of realized, now's my time to step up," Jarosz said Tuesday after practice. I started gaining more confidence in myself. Throughout the season I've been on myself to get better and improve on everything."
St. Francis, the No. 5 team in D-2 according to the Lincoln Journal Star and the 5 seed for the state tournament that begins on Thursday, won four more in a row after that victory over Fullerton. The Flyers fell to D-1 No. 3 CWC on Sept. 28 but has won 14 of the last 15 including 10 in a row en route to their second trip to Lincoln in three years and fourth in the last six seasons.
Though the conversation between Jarosz and Korus was no laughing matter at the time, the incident has become somewhat of an inside joke between coach and player. Jarosz often reminds Korus of the time he "ripped her" during the middle of a match.
From Korus' perspective, it wasn't so much as a "ripping" as it was constructive criticism.
"I give him a hard time," Jarosz said. "He's a good coach and a good friend to have."
Jarosz responded with nine kills in two of the next three matches and her second double digit total in a triangular on Sept. 28. During the 10-match streak, she has had 11 or more kills five times and 119 total, exactly half of her total for the season.
Perhaps the slow start had to do with a knee injury suffered during Jarosz's junior basketball season. The injury required surgery and rehab and came perhaps with a mental hurdle to clear once she returned to action.
Korus didn't say whether or not his urging had to do with clearing that hurdle, but whatever his intention was, he knew Jarosz had more to give.
"After the knee surgery, we didn't know if she was going to come back and be the old Caitlin of before or if she was going to take a few steps back," Korus said. "After she felt more comfortable, movement on the floor, jumping ability, she has probably come back just as strong if not stronger than last year."
Jarosz's return to form mirrors her team's return to the tops of D-2.
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St. Francis was third at state in 2017, then lost to Chambers-Wheeler Central in five at the district final last November, a match the Flyers led two sets to one before falling in the fifth 15-11.
"Last year we didn't make it and that was hard," Jarosz said. "I was extra motivated this year to make it again because it was such a fun experience during my sophomore year."
The feeling this year after the district championship was drastically different. St. Francis swept Stuart in three sets and clinched a spot at state and a match against 29-1 Garden County.
Jarosz was a key component of the victory, finishing with 17 of the team's 35 kills, her second-highest total of the season following 24 in a five set win over Nebraska Christian on Oct. 19.
"I was super excited and happy," Jarosz said. "It was a great feeling to know that we were going back to state again."
St. Francis opens state Thursday at Lincoln Northeast at 3:30 p.m.
With five seniors on the roster, Jarosz, Makenna Krings, Erin Pfeifer, Chasity Zimmerer and Lauren Pfeifer, the mood has somewhat shifted in practice. The realization that it's coming to an end for that group is starting to become a reality. Whenever it ends, that group of five is trying to take it minute by minute and enjoy the journey.
"Making it to state and being able to say that we're the seniors that did this I think is a good feeling to know we're the seniors and we're leading the team," Jarosz said. "It's kind of like a good feeling to know that the seniors were able to help out the whole team and lead in that way."
But of course, being one of the final eight teams left vying for a trophy also means St. Francis is just two wins away from playing for it all. As fun as the journey has been, there's really only one way to make it as memorable as possible.
"Obviously the end goal is to be state champs," Jarosz said. "But, to leave everything on the court and do everything we can to be where we want to be at the end."
The trip to Lincoln is the 23rd state tournament in the history of the program. St. Francis has three state championships in school history coming in 2000, 2004 and 2005. Overall, HSF has gone 25-19 at state since its first trip in 1983 - a three-set loss to Ansley.
"This group is really special," Korus said. "There's no drama and to me, that just makes the season right there. They get along really well, they have fun, they laugh and they work well together. They want to win. They kind of feed off of each other."
Peter Huguenin is a sports reporter for The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.