Some have become first-time starters while others have switched positions, but the seniors on the Fremont Bergan volleyball team have helped the Lady Knights stay on a winning path.
“I think we knew we’d have a target on our backs after winning state last year,” middle blocker Emma Walz, one of six seniors for the Lady Knights, said. “I think people underestimated us because we lost three seniors, but I think we rose to the occasion really well.”
The Lady Knights, 28-11, will face Overton, 28-4, at 3:30 Thursday afternoon at Lincoln Southeast in the Class D-1 state tournament. Bergan is looking to repeat after not dropping a set in three matches at state in 2018.
Gone from that championship team are three players, Lexie Langley, Allison Dieckmann and Haley Kempf, that earned various all-state honors. Langley (Augustana) and Dieckmann (Nebraska Wesleyan) are playing college volleyball. Kempf turned down opportunities to play volleyball or basketball in college and is a student at Northwest Missouri State.
The loss of three talented athletes could’ve decimated some teams, but the returning players felt like they had something to prove.
“They had us ranked pretty low in the preseason and we were like, ‘That’s OK, we can do this,’” said Kaia McIntyre, who was the libero as a junior, but is the setter this season. “It was a big loss because they were three great players, but I think we came back and fought hard. We’re here (at state) and we want to (win) it again.”
Allie DeGroff, who made the switch from right-side hitter to the outside, said the team has made a lot of progress.
“There was a time where I thought we’re not going to be like we were last year,” she said. “But we came out of the summer league and the summer camps and we were a lot better. We lost three good players, but we return a ton of our hitters and our freshmen girls are good passers. It is awesome that we have five hitters and also good passers in the back row.”
DeGroff leads four players in triple figures in kills with 324. Junior middle blocker Lauren Baker has 264 and is hitting a team-best .348 while Walz has 151 kills. Hannah Frost, who was a reserve in 2018, has added 139 kills and is hitting .274 from the right side.
“This year has been awesome,” Frost said. “Last year I was the bench leader so I was the biggest cheerleader for my team. I think on the court I’ve taken up the role of talker so I’ve really been communicating a lot out there. To get to play with my friends — not on the (junior varsity) court, but in the big leagues — has been so amazing.”
The senior class, that also includes Alexis Woods and Megan Demuth, has helped build a strong team bond. Walz said that cohesiveness is one of the reasons the Lady Knights have been successful.
“No one gets mad at anybody when we mess up,” she said. “We just let it go and say to each other that we’ll get the next one. We all trust each other and we know people aren’t talking behind our backs.”
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“What makes us as successful is that we’re together as a team and we play most every sport together,” she said. “Having that time together helps build the unity we want, but so does lifting weights and the other things we do in the summer. That helps us improve our game before the season starts.”
McIntyre said she has trained as a setter her whole life so moving from libero to replace Dieckmann was a pretty easy transition. She said she has also benefited from having a talented group of attackers that also includes sophomore Kennedy Bacon.
“Having hitters that are capable of hitting or placing the ball is very stress relieving to me,” she said. “If I can get them the ball in the right spot, they’ll get the kill.”
Rebecca Baker, a freshman, has also had to make an adjustment in playing varsity on a veteran squad that includes her sister. She has recorded 192 digs.
“Becca has stepped up in that libero role,” DeGroff said. “I think all of us upperclassmen have helped her in some shape or form.”
If the Lady Knights are to repeat as D-1 champs, they will first have to get past the Eagles in the quarterfinals.
“Honestly, I’m a little nervous about the opening round, but we just need to come out with fire and be ready for anything,” Walz said. “We’ve played a harder schedule that most D-1 teams.”
That challenging schedule, which included wins over Class A schools Omaha Burke, Lincoln High and Omaha South, helps in preparing for the rigors of the postseason.
“Playing bigger schools with so many girls to choose from and deeper benches will definitely benefit us,” Frost said. “I think it gives us a certain edge, especially playing so many matches on the road, and prepares us a lot for state.”
McIntyre believes the Lady Knights, who played only three home matches this fall, can be in the hunt for back-to-back titles.
“I think it is anybody’s tournament and D-1 is up for grabs,” she said. “I know we’ve been there, but there are good teams there. We just have to go out and play our game.”