A Stanton volleyball era will come to an end Saturday at Northeast Community College as Tracy Kuester-Burtwistle coaches daughter Bree Burtwistle, Jessie Brandl and Liz Christensen for the final time.
Kuester-Burtwistle is the head coach for the Light team in the Northeast Nebraska All-Star Volleyball Classic at the air-conditioned Cox Activities Center. First serve is set for 3 p.m.
The Stanton coach began coaching Bree and Jessie when they were in third grade, but said the two actually have been gym rats since they were in kindergarten.
“I coached Rachel (Jessie’s older sister) in youth,” she said. “Bug (Tracy’s name for Bree) and Jess would travel with us; they’d be in the gym for those youth tournaments. They’d be shagging balls for all of the teams, just goofing around and we would say, “Hey, here’s a ball, just go outside.’ ”
Once the two entered third grade, they were eligible to join the youth program and Kuester-Burtwistle said she could tell they and their classmates had something special.
“They all got along; they were all very talented, could do a lot of things advanced at that age,” she said.
“Even on the third-grade level, we were still pushed really hard to win and become great players,” Brandl said. “Throughout the program, from third grade through senior year, she’s always pushed us to be the best.”
And the players pushed their older and younger teammates. “They reached three grades above and three grades below and brought those girls with them,” Kuester-Burtwistle said.
Entering Bree and Jessie’s freshman season in 2015, Stanton had never qualified for a state tournament.
Since then, Mustang teams have reached Lincoln in four straight Novembers, earning a state championship in 2016, a runner-up finish in 2015 and two third-places trophies in 2017 and 18, while compiling a tournament record of 9-3.
Bree said the journey has been a blessing. “Being with my mom, it’s something special that we both share a passion for, so it’s been really special for both of us,” she said.
While the majority of Mustang players have been part of the program since they were in third grade, Liz Christensen joined the team before her junior season.
Before enrolling at Stanton, Christensen had played for her mother, Teresa, at Battle Creek and their bond is similar to that of the Burtwistles.
“My mom and I have always shared a passion for volleyball and she’s the reason I love the sport so much,” Christensen said. “She and my dad have always pushed me to be the absolute best I can be and they’ve given me all the tools and opportunities that I could have asked for to be a better player and better person.”
Liz joined the Mustangs and Teresa became part of the coaching staff in August of 2017. Kuester-Burtwistle called the transition almost seamless.
“I think what helped is that Liz, Bug, Jess, Maddie (Wieseler of Hartington Cedar Catholic) and Jada (Cattau of Cedar Catholic) all actually played on a club team a few years prior to that,” she said. “So, we actually got to know each other on the club team. (Cedar Catholic coach) Denae (Buss) and I were the coaches.”
Incidentally, Wieseler, Cattau and their Cedar Catholic teammate Brianna Miller, will be on the opposite side of the net on Saturday, and Buss will be coaching those girls for the last time.
Kuester-Burtwistle called the addition of Christensen a good fit. “She knew our philosophy. We’re pretty up front and you’re going to play your role,” she said. “She did a great job of transitioning, because where she came from, she was a setter and right-side hitter, so we moved her to more of a right-side defensive specialist.”
Being a coach’s kid, Christensen also had something in common with a couple of her teammates.
“I think what sets Bug and Jess and Liz a little bit apart, is they’ve spent a lot of time in the gym,” Kuester-Burwistle said. “So they’ve watched a lot of games and seen a lot of things happen throughout the years.”
Kuester-Burtwistle will be joined by Clarkson/Leigh’s Becky Schneider in coaching the Light team on Saturday, while Buss will be assisted by Cami Oelsligle of Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family on the Dark team bench.
As she thought about Saturday’s match, the Stanton coach tearfully said it’s going to be difficult. “I am so proud of all of our players and the program we built, but my heart is going to tug a little bit at those players,” she said.
“That last point is probably going to be hard, because I know that’s the last time we’re going to be together on that court, but I’m also excited that they get to go on.”
All three Stanton players will continue their volleyball careers at the college level: Brandl at Wayne State, Burwistle at Midland and Christensen at Northeast Community College.