Back in August, before the first serve of the first high school volleyball match in the state, most oddsmakers would have given less than a 50-50 chance that the season would last to the end.
COVID-19 wreaked havoc statewide and more than a handful of matches had to be postponed or canceled.
But after 11 weeks, six state champions were crowned and girls from nearly 300 schools and co-ops across the state had the chance to compete and make lifelong memories during a season unlike any other.
"I'm extremely thankful that we got to do it," said Kathy Gebhardt, coach of Class C2 state champion Lutheran High Northeast. "The NSAA did a great job of putting it together and keeping it together and running it. I'm just very appreciative of that."
Gebhardt was also thankful the virus had little effect on her team's season. "We never had a player miss a game; we never had a game on our schedule altered because of COVID," she said. "We're probably one of very few teams that didn't have anything like that. It didn't affect us other than we were trying to take the appropriate measures to keep playing, whether hosting games or on the road, just doing all the things we were asked to do."
The situation was a little more problematic for Class D2 state runner-up Chambers/Wheeler Central. Senior outside hitter Rachel Dierks' parents were affected by the virus and unable to attend the state tournament.
"We were unsure of whether Rachel would get to play or not," coach Diane Kasselder said. "She was kind of back and forth the whole time with the health department."
Dierks did play at the state tournament and played well. But since the second week of the season, she and the three other Wheeler Central students on the team — Morgan Ramsey, Makenna Pelster and Cheyenne Pokorny — have been isolated from the rest of the school population.
"Chambers masked their whole school," Kasselder said, but Wheeler voted to not mask, so the superintendent (Rodney Olson) and I got together and I said, 'Won't it just be really sad if all the Chambers girls get to play and the Wheeler girls would not get to play because they don't mask?'
"So, he came up with this plan to put the girls in the media room and then they would Zoom with their teachers or their teachers would come into the room with their masks on and do their studies. It was very good of the superintendent because the football boys did end up getting COVID and their season ended. So, it would have affected our Wheeler girls. It would have been a bad outcome for them and the team."
Both Lutheran High Northeast and CWC persevered through the stressful season, both played in state championship matches and both have earned No. 1 rankings on the final Class C and D charts for teams in Northeast and North Central Nebraska.
LUTHERAN HIGH Northeast finished the year with an incredible record of 36 wins and 1 loss after defeating cross-town rival Norfolk Catholic in a memorable five-setter for the state championship. Seven seniors — Chloe Spence, Maddie Becker, Chloe Bitney, Grace Bitney, Becca Gebhardt, Aubrey Herbolsheimer and Halle Berner — formed the core of a team that has steadily improved over the past three seasons.
Coach Gebhardt said she'd known for a long time that the current seniors were a special group. "Seeing them come together in junior high and some of the things they did back in the summer when we would run our summer league, I can remember moms from some of the younger grades say, 'You know, I don't think we're ever going to get our girls to that point,' ” she said with a laugh. "There was just something special about them when you watch them play together that they kind of had it all."
Gebhardt said the key ingredient for the 2020 squad's success was the unselfish nature of the girls on the team. "They were just willing to do whatever we asked them to do," she said. "They were willing to be put in different positions. We had girls that played a couple of different spots out on the court. It wasn't 'I am an outside, and that's all I do.' The girls would go wherever we asked them."
While hitters like Becca Gebhardt, Spence, Herbolsheimer, Grace Bitney, Mia Furst and Lauren Buhrman received a lot of well-deserved credit, coach Gebhardt said the girls in the back row were the unsung heroes. "We gave (libero) Halle Berner huge responsibilities on defense and she took it all upon herself to go out there and do it.
"Maddie Becker, our setter, just plays back row, but we really asked her to step it up defensively and do some adjustments on middle attack even for that last match. I just thought she went out there and played great defense. And people like Amber Bockelman, back there just making play after play after play, just that unselfishness that everybody was doing what's best for the team."
Gebhardt said the final piece of the state championship puzzle involved the contributions from the girls who normally don't see a lot of playing time. "They come to practice every day and work their butts off and put their hearts into it," she said. "It's them pushing in practice every day that makes everybody better. Those girls have accepted their role and done whatever we asked them to do, without getting a lot of recognition; I'm just so proud of them as well."
The seven talented seniors will be difficult to replace, but Gebhardt said the future for Lutheran High volleyball is bright. "There's a lot of young kids that watched this happen, that are very excited and want to be Lady Eagles when it's their turn," she said. "I think the younger kids out there are going to keep working hard. They're going to do the things they need to do to be ready to come in and get to camps and summer workouts because they know what's possible when they work hard."
KASSELDER SAID the CWC girls expected to win. "I had a mature group of girls. They had a great goal in mind, and I think we accomplished everything we set out to do."
Despite her Renegades falling in the state championship match to Diller-Odell, also in five sets, Kasselder called it a coaching dream come true. "There's so many coaches that don't get that opportunity and, for such a little school to go so far, I don't even feel like we lost. I have had no regrets. It was just a tremendous season."
Like Lutheran High, the Renegades relied on a large, talented senior class — Brooke Ehlers, Emma Jonseth, Michelle Koenig, Ryann Haburchak, Alexis Butterfield, Ramsey, Dierks and Metschke — to pave the way to a stellar season of 32 wins and 2 losses.
"They came in as freshmen with such great attitudes, and they just worked so hard for me," Kasselder said. "I'll remember how much fun they were. If we would get a little tight, Ryann Haburchak would have a joke to tell us.
"I'll remember how well they played down at state; they played probably their best volleyball that I've ever seen them play. We've had glimpses of those moments but, as a whole unit, I would say their state games were the most solid three consecutive volleyball matches we've played in their whole careers."
Kasselder said the Renegades' accomplishments are even more impressive considering they don't have the advantages and opportunities other top programs have. "They did a lot of learning on the fly," she said. "A lot of those state tournament teams, those girls play club ball. They're at club the next day after the state tournament. But these girls would pretty much just play the 11 or 12 weeks of volleyball and a little bit in the summer. I just thought they accomplished so much in such a little space and time."
Losing eight seniors will be difficult, but Kasselder said the three juniors, including libero Pelster, will be effective. "They know a lot about volleyball," she said. "There's some eighth-grade girls who are fairly athletic that are going to come in, and even freshman girls will have to step up. They have big shoes to fill, but my philosophy is 'if you expect a lot, they give a lot,' so that's kind of how we run it. They know that, and we'll just get to work."
We published the last ratings chart just before the beginning of subdistricts, and the top three teams in Class C remained the same.
Of course, Lutheran High Northeast is No. 1 and has been since the preseason. The Eagles were just one five-set loss to Class C1 bronze medalist Columbus Lakeview from having a perfect record.
Norfolk Catholic is the easy choice for No. 2. Half of the Knights' eight losses came at the hands of Lutheran High, while No. 3 Wayne came up one match short of qualifying for the Class C1 state tournament for a third straight year. The Blue Devils fell to Lakeview in five sets in the district final.
Clarkson/Leigh made the biggest move, going from the ranks of the honorably mentioned to No. 4. The Patriots gave Lutheran High all it could handle in the state semifinals before falling in five sets. Coach Becky Schneider's crew improved a ton in the last two weeks of the season.
Oakland-Craig remained fifth. Like Wayne, the Knights missed a spot in the C1 state tournament by one match, falling to Broken Bow in the district final.
Howells-Dodge dropped from fourth to sixth. The Jaguars earned a spot in the C2 state tournament, where they lost the battle of Highway 91 in the opening round to Clarkson/Leigh, and West Point-Beemer fell from sixth to seventh. The Cadets dropped their subdistrict final to Oakland-Craig.
The other West Point side, Guardian Angels Central Catholic, also fell one slot, from seventh to eighth. The Bluejays ran into a tough Overton squad in the state tournament's opening round.
Former No. 8 Battle Creek just missed out on a slot in the final eight. The Bravettes will have to settle for the ranks of the honorably mentioned along with O'Neill, Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur, Crofton and Ponca.
After subdistricts, district finals and the state tournament, the top six teams on the Class D chart remained unchanged.
Chambers/Wheeler Central ended the year No. 1 after its runner-up finish in the D2 state tournament.
COVID took its toll on No. 2 Humphrey St. Francis. The Flyers were missing their head coach, Dean Korus, as well as several players in the opening round of the D2 state tournament, a match they lost to Fall City Sacred Heart in four sets.
No. 3 Hartington Cedar Catholic rebounded from a straight-sets subdistrict final loss to Hartington-Newcastle to defeat Elgin Public/Pope John with a trip to state on the line. The Trojans then fell in the opening round to perennial power Bruning-Davenport/Shickley.
Wynot remained fourth after qualifying for state and falling in four sets to eventual state runner-up CWC, in the first round.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family's 15-15 record doesn't jump off the page, but most of the D1 team's matches are against C1 and C2 teams. The Bulldogs came up one match short of a trip to state, losing to Mead in the district final.
No. 6 Summerland didn't make it out of the subdistrict, losing in the final to Elgin Public/Pope John in what had to be a disappointing end to the season.
Hartington-Newcastle moved from the honorable mention list to No. 7 after surprising Cedar Catholic in the subdistrict final. The Wildcats fell one match short of a trip to Lincoln after falling to two-time defending D1 state champ Fremont Bergan in the district final.
Finally, Elgin Public/Pope John fell from seventh to eighth. Like Hartington-Newcastle, the Wolfpack came on strong at season's end, earning third place in the Niobrara Valley Conference tournament and winning the subdistrict over Summerland before falling to Cedar Catholic with a trip to state on the line.
Former No. 8 Winside fell to Wynot in the district final and, likewise, fell from the ratings chart to the honorable mention list, joining Boyd County, Elkhorn Valley, Randolph and Wausa.
That puts a wrap on the 2020 volleyball season. Thanks to all of the players, coaches and fans who made it so memorable.
Coaches, I sent you all-area forms earlier this week. Please fill them out and return them as soon as possible. And if you have one or more players you feel warrants first-team status in either Class C or Class D, please also include a high-resolution picture of each.
If for some reason, you did not receive a form, please let me know via email — email@example.com — and I'll get one out to you immediately.