It isn't often a Class D2 team can boast of eight seniors and three juniors on a varsity roster, but that's the luxury Chambers/Wheeler Central coach Diane Kasselder enjoys.
"Every one of them is athletic with good work ethics," Kasselder said. "They're very goal-oriented, high achievers. They tend to want the best for each other, and that is very rare in that big of a group of girls. Usually, you kind of have cliques, but this group, they really do want the best for the other girls."
The Renegades have some unfinished business in 2020. CWC took a 30-2 record into last year's Class D1 state tournament, only to fall in straight sets to fellow Northeast Nebraska entry Hartington Cedar Catholic, whose 18-12 record was misleading since the Trojans played a mostly Class C schedule.
CWC's mission to get back to state this year might be slightly easier, since after a one-year stay in D1, the Renegades are back in D2.
The girls from Holt and Wheeler counties are 25-1 going into the Niobrara Valley Conference tournament, which begins Monday and concludes a week from Friday.
The only blemish on an otherwise perfect mark came at the hands of Class C1 Wayne in the semifinals of the Wisner-Pilger September Classic.
The Renegades have had to play the last eight matches without senior outside hitter Tessa Metschke. "She is a little bit injured right now, but her support of the team and taking it gracefully has been great as well," Kasselder said.
Where most coaches use a seven- or eight-player rotation, Kasselder has the luxury of a deep bench and plays every player on her varsity roster.
"It just depends on whether we're looking at a more offensive set or a more defensive set. But the kids take the change really well," she said.
"I don't know how many teams I've coached that I could put a different lineup in or a different serve-receive in and I can change it during the game or before the game and we might struggle, but they understand it and they can adapt very quickly."
Senior middle Morgan Ramsey is always on the court. "She's a big hitter, strong passer, great server and a great teammate, Kasselder said.
The coach calls senior setter Ryann Haburchak the leader and describes her as the hardest worker. "Ryann is a girl that comes into practice and she gives you effort every single day."
Senior outside Emma Jonseth is another six-rotation player. "She's athletic and can jump out of the gym," Kasselder said. "She's probably the most improved player since freshman year."
Kasselder praised four other seniors — Rachel Dierks, Michelle Koenig, Brooke Ehlers and Alexis Butterfield — for accepting their roles as well as for their willingness to change their roles from time to time for the good of the team.
That also goes for junior Elli Metschke. "Elli could be setting for anybody else," Kasselder said. "The fact that she's been having to sit on the bench, that is hard for kids to accept. But she's a great athlete, very athletic. I've put her in as an outside, I've put her in as a middle. She just wants to get on the court and play."
Kasselder isn't afraid to call on junior outside Cheyenne Pokorny when the chips are down. "We were playing Mullen last weekend in a tournament and, in the heat of battle, she went in and served our last three points," Kasselder said.
And Kasselder called junior outside MaKenna Pelster a coach on the floor. "She knows the game inside and out. She helps me coach a lot of times. She's very supportive of all her teammates."
With the postseason just around the corner, Kasselder said her team needs to focus on staying aggressive when things don't go their way.
"Everybody's game is getting a little bit better and stronger, and we probably have the biggest target on our back. I mean, they're going to swing big, because, why wouldn't they?”
Kasselder has cherished her time with this special team for reasons that go way beyond the volleyball court.
"This has just been an extraordinary group and you can't help but fall in love with them when you're around them a lot because they're pretty awesome human beings."
Chambers/Wheeler Central moved from No. 3 to the top of the ratings ladder for Northeast and North Central Nebraska's Class D1 and D2 teams. The Renegades finished off a 7-0 week that included victories over Wausa, Elgin Public/Pope John, Mullen and Burwell.
Season-long No. 1 Humphrey St. Francis dropped a spot to after falling in straight sets to Class C2 Clarkson/Leigh.
Hartington Cedar Catholic moved from fourth to third after sweeping last week's No. 3, Wynot. The Blue Devils had to shut it down for two weeks because of COVID-19 before ramping it up again in the first week of October.
Wynot dropped just one spot to fourth despite going 0-3 against Class C1 and C2 competition in the Wisner-Pilger tournament. The Blue Devils then rebounded to post wins over Plainview and Randolph.
Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family is still fifth after a 1-1 week. Summerland won twice over the last seven days and is still sixth.
Former No. 7 Winside — which tumbled out of the ratings after dropping four straight matches, including two to 8-13 Tri County Northeast — and last week's No. 8, Randolph, will head the list of honorably mentioned this week.
Hartington-Newcastle is the new No. 7 after quality wins over Laurel-Concord-Coleridge, Wausa and Winside while Elgin Public/Pope John earned its way on the chart after going 3-1 in the last week.
As mentioned above, Winside and Randolph are honorably mentioned as well as Wausa, Boyd County, Elkhorn Valley, Stuart and Tri County Northeast.
There are no more unbeaten teams in Northeast and North Central Nebraska after No. 1 Lutheran High Northeast lost a five-set thriller to one of the best Class C1 teams in the state in Columbus Lakeview.
The Eagles easily maintained their top spot on the Class C chart just as Norfolk Catholic is still second after victories over Battle Creek, O'Neill and Wahoo Neumann and a loss to undefeated St. Paul.
Former No. 3 Oakland-Craig dropped a spot after a five-set loss to Class D1 Fremont Bergan while Wayne moved from fourth to third after a victory over Crofton.
West Point-Beemer is still fifth despite a loss to southeast Nebraska juggernaut Malcolm.
The biggest shakeup happened in the last three spots on the Class C chart. O'Neill moves in at No. 6 after big wins over Wynot, Clarkson/Leigh and Battle Creek, as well as a competitive loss to Norfolk Catholic.
Guardian Angels Central Catholic remained seventh after wins over Wisner-Pilger and Pierce and a loss to Lutheran High Northeast, and 18-4 Howells-Dodge replaces Highway 91 neighbor Clarkson/Leigh at the No. 8 spot.
Battle Creek and Clarkson/Leigh head the honorably mentioned along with Bancroft-Rosalie/Lyons-Decatur, Crofton, Laurel-Concord-Coleridge, North Bend Central, Pender, Pierce, Ponca and Wisner-Pilger.
CONFERENCE TOURNAMENT PREVIEWS
League tournaments begin Thursday with the East Husker leading things off. This is a balanced season for that conference, but I'll take West Point-Beemer to defeat Oakland-Craig in the final on Saturday in Stanton.
Defending Class D2 state runner-up Humphrey St. Francis is the top seed in the Goldenrod Conference, which draws most of its teams from central Nebraska. That gets underway Thursday as well. Look for the Flyers to be hoisting the championship trophy on Saturday after defeating Nebraska Christian in the final at Central Valley High School near Greeley.
The Lewis & Clark Conference starts on Saturday and crowns its champion on Tuesday in Laurel. Like the East Husker, this league is wide open. After hours of painstaking research and analysis — OK, more like seconds — the call here is for top-seeded Wynot to earn the crown with a victory over a young and improving Hartington-Newcastle in the final.
The Mid-State Conference won't release its bracket until Friday. The tournament starts Monday and crowns its champion on next Thursday at the Norfolk Catholic Activities Center. It says here that the host Knights will reign over the league after an entertaining five-set thriller over Wayne in the final — assuming they're on opposite sides of the bracket.
The Niobrara Valley Conference also starts on Monday and ends next Friday night in Atkinson. Chambers/Wheeler Central is the clear favorite, and Summerland will make for a formidable championship match foe with CWC prevailing in four sets.
The Heartland Athletic Conference holds its league tourney in Kearney a week from Friday. Because of COVID, officials have decided to use the NSAA point system to break teams into three four-team pools. Therefore, only the top four seeds will have a shot at the championship. Look for Norfolk to win at least one match in its pool and for Lincoln Pius X to be crowned HAC champion.
Finally, two area teams — Ainsworth and Valentine — compete in the Southwest Conference, which also includes Cozad, Gothenburg, Ogallala, McCook, Minden and Broken Bow. The league's tournament is a one-day event, which is set for a week from Saturday in McCook. The Bulldogs and Badgers will battle hard, but in the end, Broken Bow will be crowned champion.