Papio South took over in the fifth set against Gretna to win the match 3-2 (27-25, 21-25, 25-22. 18-25 and 15-7) and be crowned Class A State Volleyball Championship at the Bob Devaney Center Saturday.
“We didn’t have our best game. I think we felt a little off,” Papio South head coach Katie Wright said. “The last two nights we’ve settled in and gotten in a groove, but I felt more confident tonight. It was like, ‘OK’ things aren’t quite going our way, but that’s the nature of this team. They take care of each other and they’re going to pick somebody up if they’re struggling.”
Papio South’s Ava LeGrand totaled 21 kills, 20 assists and 19 digs, while Sophie Hendrix added 13 kills and 19 digs. From the very beginning of the match, LeGrand was as steady as can be for the Titans.
After watching both of her sisters success at Papio South, it was a moment the sophomore has been groomed for.
“I thrive off them,” LeGrand said. “Sophie was telling me like, ‘You got this. This is your game’. I thrive of that. Like when my teammates are down, I can say, ‘I got you. I have your back’.
It was the sophomore who tallied the first Titan point of the game on a kill and then finished the match with a block to give Papio South the state title.
“She told me, she just put her hands up and closed her eyes,” a laughing Hendrix said.
“It’s kind of a blurr. I don’t really remember it,” LeGrand added with a smile.
Gretna’s Emma Prentice tallied 20 kills, while Lydia Yost and Skylar McCune added 18 and 14 kills, respectively. Lauren Anderson finished with 55 assists and Kenedy Schaecher added 29 digs.
“I thought we made some good adjustments and got the middles going. I thought Emma Prentice had a great match. We thought it was a good matchup for us and we wanted to get (Prentice) going early but we just didn’t find her early enough,” Gretna head coach Mike Brandon said.
The first set was a battle between both teams. Gretna jumped out to a 13-6 lead, including a 9-1 run, before the Titans scored the next 8 of 10 points for a 15-14 Dragon lead.
Then with Gretna leading 23-20, the Titans scored four-straight and seven of the next nine to take the first set 27-25. LeGrand totaled six kills, six digs and three blocks in the set.
The Dragons expanded on a slim lead late in the second set to tie the match at 1-1. Gretna went ahead 7-4 before the Titans came back to tie the set at 15-all. With the score 20-19 in favor of Gretna, the Dragons scored five of the next seven points, that included two kills by Yost and Prentice each, to take the set 25-21.
The third set was a back and forth affair. After the set was tied 10-10, the Titans went on a 7-2 run, that included three kills and a block by LeGrand. With the Titans leading 20-17, Gretna scored three straight to tie the set, and then the Titans scored five of the next seven to take the third set 25-23.
LeGrand and Emma O’Neill tallied two kills each during the last run for Papio South.
“I thought they game planned us well. They did a good job against both of outside (hitters),” Brandon said.
The fourth set was a game of runs. The Titans scored the first-three points before the Dragons responded with a 11-2 run for a 11-5 lead. Papio South responded with six-straight points to tie the set at 11-all.
A kill, an ace and a block gave Gretna a 14-11 lead and then with the score 15-13, the Dragons scored four straight, that included a kill by Schuler, Prentice and Yost each, for a 19-13 lead.
With the score 24-18, McCune clutched a kill to give the Dragons the fourth set and tie the match at 2-2.
The Titans took over in the fifth set. With the scored tied at 3-all, Papio South scored the next seven of eight points, that included a block and kill by O’Neill and a kill and ace by Hendrix, to go ahead 10-4.
Then with the score 11-6, the Titans scored the next three of four points to lead 14-7. A kill attempt by Gretna was blocked by LeGrand for a point and the match to win the Class A state championship.
“It’s their last time out there. I said, ‘relax this is your last game to play and it’s volleyball’. It’s supposed to be super fun and what better environment to be in right now. Let’s just have fun this last set,” Wright said about her message to the team before the fifth set.
It’s the programs first title since winning three straight from 2010-12.
“Our program is in a good place right now. We have kids coming up that are eager to get out there.” Wright said. “We had many of them here so it’s exciting and exciting time for our program.”
As for Gretna, they finish the season with a 28-11 record and have made the Class A state tournament in both seasons since joining. It’s been an up and down year for Brandon and the Gretna community. When adversity struck though, the Dragons came even closer as a team and a community, as a whole.
“It’s been a great season. I love this group. They embraced the challenge. Obviously, it’s been a hard year and they met while we were in recovery and our coaches, met with them and they made a gameplan for how they were going to handle the adversity we were facing,” Brandon said. “They got to work and their ability to handle that adversity is part of the reason we were in the ship.”
The path for Papio South becoming the top team in Class A started on Sept. 20 when they were 4-6 and switched schemes before the Lincoln Public School Classic. The Titans went on to finish 6-1 in the tournament.
“We had some adversity in the beginning of the season with an injury that forced us to kind of create a lineup that was different,” Wright said. “It was not traditional and that in of itself makes a team learn how to respond and deal with something their not used to.
“They responded two days before the LPS Tournament when we learned this new system, that they’ve never seen before and they executed it at the LPS Tournament flawlessly. During that tournament, they learned that they could do something like that.”
Then, the Titans fully turned the switch on Oct. 12. Sitting with a 15-16 record, Papio South finished the season with an 8-1 record to be crowned Class A Champions.
“From then on, they embraced anytime that they were down and they embraced anytime that there was something weird that happened. They started to learn that they didn’t have to dwell on a mistake,” Wright said. “They can just come right back and that’s truly the game. Volleyball is a game of mistakes and I just think they have matured dramatically over the course of the year.”
Hendrix echoed that statement. It was a tough situation for the Titans to grind through, but three seniors kept everyone pulling in the right direction when all it could’ve taken was one person to derail the journey’s up and downs this season.
“Definitely as a senior, I feel like I grew up because there are three seniors on the team so I had to take all my little ones in under my wing and it’s really fun,” Hendrix said. “We grew so much as teammates and as players. Everyone just loves each other and I really think that helps us get through these tough matches.”
The bond between the team allowed players to flourish in multidimensional roles. Six players had over 250 digs, five players tallied 15 or more aces, three players finished with over 200 kills and two players notched over 430 assists this season.
It’s remarkable given the Titans were playing a different system from when they started the season.
“We had multiple kids that had to play positions that they never played before and no one complained,” Wright said. “They said, ‘Tell me what you need me to do and I’ll do it’, and that’s what happened.”
“In the huddle we would say, ‘Just do your job’,” LeGrand added.
That mindset led the Titans to 18 total blocks against Gretna Saturday. A stat that left LeGrand and Hendrix in disbelief for a moment at the post-game press conference.
“The difference maker,” Wright instantly said.
“The girls have been becoming more and more confident knowing they can handle anything, it also means they become more confident around the net and they know blocking is such a mentality. If you truly believe you’re going to get this ball, you’re going to get the ball more times than not.”