The states of Michigan and Minnesota both began fall volleyball seasons. Both saw the seasons pause because of COVID-19. Minnesota’s season never resumed. Michigan completed its season, after a two-month hiatus, with championship finals on Saturday. Such is the unpredictable nature of playing volleyball during a pandemic. You never know if you’re going to get to the end of the season …

Two weeks ago, began a rundown of girls high school volleyball in the 50 states, starting with the first 10 states in the alphabet. Last week, we presented the next 10 states. We are focused on celebrating championship runs, for states that played a full season; and timetables for return to play for states that did not.

This week, we recap (or look ahead to) volleyball from Massachusetts to New Jersey. In Michigan, a school won state two days after losing its athletic director to COVID-19. In Montana, one school took down a dynasty, while another continued its historic run. In Nebraska, all of the favorites hoisted championship trophies. Teams won state championships with no seniors on the roster. Others won because of senior dominance. Minnesota played, but Kennedi Orr, the No. 1 recruit in the senior class, did not.

Nickname: The Bay State
Capital city: Boston
Population: 6.9 million
Year of statehood: 1788

The Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association took several steps to modify its volleyball season in light of COVID-19. First, it canceled the state tournament, as it did in all fall sports. Second, it gave schools the choice of playing in Fall 1 (a two-month season starting September 10) or Fall 2 (a two-month season starting February 22).

Most schools, including traditional powers Barnstable, Newton North and Frontier Regional, opted for Fall 2, not only because of the virus, but also because the gym was being used for other purposes, such as learning space or a cafeteria.

Quincy (14-0) and Duxbury (13-1) were among 50 or so schools to play in the fall. They had successful seasons. Minnechaug also did well, going 7-0. But the Falcons lost several matches due to COVID.

“I was told that teams who chose the Fall 1, if their season was shortened to less than 50% of their matches due to shutdowns or the like they could switch to Fall 2,” said coach Mark Taylor. “We were scheduled to have 10 matches. Unfortunately, we were only able to complete seven before a breakout within the school with other sports teams. Because we completed 70% of our matches we are done.”

About 250 schools are getting ready for Fall 2. According to Westborough coach Roger Anderson, the idea is for schools to build a “geographic pod” of nearby schools, play home and away in the same week against one opponent, then do the same against a new opponent the following week. Barnstable, for example, would only play other Cape Cod schools. Venerable head coach Tom Turco said that the Red Raiders’ eight-game schedule was in doubt, because the school is currently on a two-week hiatus from winter sports because of a rise in COVID numbers.

Massachusetts did get creative and implemented the “Covid Zone.”

“It is a funky new rule stating that attackers could not strike the ball within three feet of the net above the height of the net when attacking,” Anderson said. “It was a unique effort at keeping the blockers and attackers further apart to reduce the spread of the virus.”

Nickname: The Wolverine State
Capital city: Ann Arbor
Population: 9.9 million
Year of statehood: 1837

Volleyball began on schedule in Michigan, with first matches in late August and a state tournament contemplated for the third weekend in November. Then, on Nov. 15, with the playoffs in volleyball’s four divisions down to their final eight teams, Governor Gretchen Whitmer ordered all sports activities – practices and contests – suspended because of COVID-19.

Originally, the playoffs were set to resume in December, but they were pushed back a couple of times before finally recommencing on January 12.

Battle Creek St. Philip was one of the 32 teams still in the hunt when the November shutdown happened. The Tigers were the state’s winningest program, with 20 state titles all time. But Vicky Groat’s team, which dominated the smallest classification from the turn of the century, appearing in 15 straight finals with 10 championships, including nine straight starting in 2007; hadn’t been in a final since 2005 and hadn’t won since the year before that. The players really wanted to get back to the final and win another title for the school and Coach Groat.

Groat said that her players were very upset when news of the shutdown reached them.

“Once we returned from our first restart, the kids really didn’t think the season still was going to finish,” she said. “They were very cautious.  They were disappointed again after the second pause, but once we had testing in place attitudes changed.”

St. Philip was severely tested its first match back and trailed two sets to one in the Division 4 quarterfinal versus Lansing Christian. The Tigers dominated the fourth set but fell behind 10-4 in the fifth and eventually had to fight off two match points against before winning, 16-14.

After sweeping the semifinal, St. Philip (23-13) played lights out in the first two sets of the championship match this past Saturday against Oakland Christian of Auburn Hills. The Lancers fought back to win the next two. The teams played an even fifth set that went to extra points. Middle blocker Harleen Deol, the only senior on the squad, had kills to twice put St. Philip one point away from the title. The Tigers converted the second one when an Oakland Christian attack sailed long.

Junior Brooke Dzwik, who had seven kills in that fifth set, finished with 37 kills and 32 digs for the victors. Deol added 16 kills, Rachel Myers had 51 assists and 16 digs and Bailey Fancher and Kate Doyle teamed for 49 digs.

“I think the biggest reason we were able to capture a title for this group was the confidence they had once Districts started,” Groat said. “We struggled most of the season with confidence and just plain believing in ourselves.  We played some really good teams in the tournament run.  This group didn’t give up. They kept battling, digging in to achieve their goal of winning a title.”

Winning the championship evoked pure joy for the players and the families.

“Ít’s been a dream since fifth grade,” Doel, the lone senior, told a local paper. “It’s a dream come true my senior year.”

“I will remember the excitement of winning and the joy on the face of my players and parents,” Groat said.  “That might be the biggest thing I take away from this year.  Pure joy for the families.”

Anna Frazee had 10 kills and five blocks and Olivia Colletti added 36 digs in the loss for Oakland Christian, which was playing in its first championship match since 2016. The Lancers, who had three players decline to rejoin the team after the restart, played the final with just eight players on the roster.

Marian’s Division I sweep of 2019 runner-up Lowell, its third all-time but first since 2010, was, at best, bittersweet. It came two days after Dave Feldman, the school’s beloved athletic director and one of the team’s biggest fans, died at age 65 after a lengthy battle with COVID.

Feldman would have wanted Marian to play, coach Mayssa Cook said.

“We’re going to go out there and honor his name by playing as hard as we can and be Marian strong,” Cook told a local paper before the semifinal match. “He loved his job and he loved the athletes and the community is heartbroken and we’re going to mourn his loss for years to come.”

Marian beat a veteran Lowell team despite playing without a senior on its roster. Junior Ava Brizard had 29 kills and nine digs to lead the way for the Mustangs. Sophomore Ava Safara added 39 assists and eight digs. Two other sophomores, Lauren Heming (15 digs) and Ella Schomer (eight kills and 11 digs), also made big contributions for Marian.

A trio of seniors led Lowell, which had never been to the state final before 2019. Jenna Reitsma, the best player in the history of the school, capped her career with the Red Arrows by delivering 22 kills and nine digs. Sophie Powell had 32 assists and Emma Hall chipped in with 17 digs.

Grand Rapids Christian won its third straight Division 2 title, sweeping three tight sets from Lake Odessa Lakewood in a battle of heavyweights. The first two sets were especially competitive. GRC led 21-20 in the first before closing on a 4-0 run. The Eagles were up 19-17 in the second and scored six of the final nine points to take a two-set lead into the third. Grand Rapids Christian, which also bested Lakewood in last year’s final, stormed to a 19-10 Game 3 on its way to the sweep.

Setter Alyssa DeVries was masterful running the offense for GRC. She had 43 assists and eight digs. The helpers went largely to Addie VanderWeide (19 kills and 11 digs) and Evie Doezma (16 kills) as the Eagles outhit Lakewood, .246 to .117. Lauren Peal controlled the back line with 17 digs.

Aubrey O’Gorman, one of only two seniors on Lakewood’s roster, had 17 kills and three blocks in the final match of her storied career. Her sister, Maradith O’Gorman, contributed eight kills, 15 digs and four blocks. Sophomore Skylar Bump added 23 aces and 14 digs.

Monroe St. Mary Catholic Central defeated Schoolcraft for the second straight year for the Division 3 title. Unlike 2019, when the Kestrels won in a five-set thriller, the team dominated Schoolcraft on Saturday to take home state title No. 7 all-time.

Mikayla Haut led the way for SMCC, contributing 17 kills, 12 digs and three aces. Abbie Costlow added 14 kills, Jaydin Nowak had 23 digs and the setter tandem of Kate Collingsworth and Grace Lipford paired for 40 assists and 15 digs.

Schoolcraft, which won its semifinal by forfeit over Saginaw Valley Lutheran after a player tested positive for COVID, forcing everyone else on the team to quarantine; had only 22 kills in the championship match compared for 43 for SMCC. Maggie Morris had nine of them. Kayla Onken had 15 assists and six kills in the loss, while Kelby Goldschmeding and Allie Goldschmeding combined for 27 digs.

Nickname: The North Star State
Capital city: St. Paul
Population: 5.7 million
Year of statehood: 1858

The Minnesota State High School League went back and forth on COVID-19. In early August, it deferred football and volleyball to the spring. On September 21, it changed course and reinstated the sports, which had the effect of delaying the start of the fall season by six weeks. Rather than start matches in August, the 2020 season would begin no earlier than October 8 and end on December 12, following a two-week post-season.

In early October and every week through November 22, the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association released its “Coaches Top 10 Poll” in each of the state’s three classifications. Ranking was made more difficult because of the prohibition on tournaments. Teams could only play Conference, Section and local opponents.

At least the post-season would help sort out the best of the best…

Then came the announcement:

The Minnesota State High School League has determined that the volleyball and football seasons conclude on Friday, November 20, 2020.  

The MSHSL recognizes the challenges and interruptions that have impacted this year’s football and volleyball seasons.  The League’s goal of providing an experience in all activities will continue. Unfortunately, the volleyball and football experiences for the student-athletes came to an end due to the COVID-19 case rates in Minnesota and the Governor’s Executive Order 20-99. The League thanks all students, coaches, officials and activities directors for their work in navigating this difficult and unpredictable season. 

Member schools are reminded that all season-concluding events such as banquets and exit interviews should be conducted virtually.

And that was that. Unlike Michigan, the volleyball season did not pause; it ended. With very little advance notice.

At the time, defending champion Wayzata (13-0) topped the Class AAA poll, followed by Lakeville North, Eagan, East Ridge and Shakopee. Defending champion Stewartville (11-0) was the top choice in Class AA, with Marshall, Concordia, Watertown-Mayer and Kasson-Mantorville rounding out the top five. In Class A, 2019 state runner-up Waterville-Elysian-Morristown (11-0) topped the charts, thanks to a four-set win Nov. 20 over defending champion Minneota. Minneota, Mayer Lutheran, Mabel-Canton and Greenway completed the top five.

Schools reacted to the season shutdown in very different ways.

At Wayzata, head coach Scott Jackson admitted to feeling relieved at the news.

“They shut us down a week before Thanksgiving,” he said. “I was wondering how I was going to keep the kids safe after the holiday.”

Jackson said that he wasn’t surprised the MSHSL canceled the rest of the season rather than merely pause it like Michigan did. The state association was very aware that spring sports in 2020 had been canceled entirely. Saving Spring 2021 was more of a priority.

Jackson’s players reacted to the shutdown with a mix of gratitude and tears. The sadness was tempered by quick action from Bill Quan to organize a pseudo-section tournament for the section’s top four seeds.

“We certainly had those thoughts of ‘What might have been?’ but at least we got to have a culminating event,” Jackson explained.

Jackson said that the fall 2021 season also could not come fast enough.

“I bring everybody back,” he said.

That includes the Swenson twins, freshmen Olivia and Stella; libero Ella Voegele and 6-4 middle Emma Koerger.

“Next year will be deepest team I’ve ever had,” Jackson said.

At Northfield, head coach Tim Torstenson was angry. His Raiders were tied for sixth in AAA and 13-0 at season’s end; and unfulfilled. The team’s 2019 season ended in the section tournament two wins from a trip to state, in part because of an injury to junior OH Rachel Wieber. Redemption had been on the team’s mind all season long.

“We were a team that had a very good chance to get to the state tournament this year,” Torstenson said.  “We have gone 44-0 the last four years in our conference (132-3 sets). To just play our conference schedule with no playoffs was extremely disappointing for the girls. Both Iowa and Wisconsin were able to hold their state tournaments. We had been safe and not had a single case on our team.  The girls were very careful and knew what the consequences would be if we were to have a case. The [MSHSL] did not handle it well. The season was taken from them.”

Mabel-Canton head coach Lonnie Morken said that having the season shut down abruptly was devastating.

“We came to the realization there was not going to be a state tournament, but we really wanted to play out our section tournament,” he said.  “It really left a hollow feeling to the end of our season.  I was able to schedule a team from the Twin Cities on our last possible day to play, so that was a great way to finish our season.  We were able to travel to the Twin Cities, and although it wasn’t for the state tournament, which was our goal, it was still a special way to end our season.  What I will remember the most is how resilient the girls were.  We were so happy being in the gym everyday playing the sport we love.  In many ways, it brought our team closer than in a normal season.”

Eagan head coach Kathy Gillen said that she wasn’t surprised when the state put a stop to the season.

“I saw it coming with the numbers going up,” she declared. “If we had started in August, we would have been done with everything before then.”

Gillen said that her team, which finished the season 9-2, reacted with maturity to the news.

“I think the team takes on the demeanor of the coach with things like this,” she explained.  “They were just happy to play together.”

Senior S/RS Kennedi Orr did not suit up for Eagan. The nation’s No. 1 prospect, a Nebraska signee, tore her ACL early in September while playing in a fall league sponsored by Northern Lights Volleyball Club.

“It was a huge bummer for Kennedi, but if it was ever going to happen, this was the time I guess,” Gillen said. “She’ll be ready to go next fall.”

Despite not playing, the Minnesota Volleyball Coaches Association, recognizing her achievements over five years as a varsity player, named Orr the winner of the Ms. Baden Award as the state’s best player.

DeSoto Central won the MHSAA Class 6A crown/Keith Warren photo

Nickname: The Magnolia State
Capital city: Jackson
Population: 3.0 million
Year of statehood: 1817

The Midsouth Association of Independent Schools (MAIS) is MUCH smaller than the 260+ strong Mississippi High School Athletic Association (MHSAA), with just 15 teams playing; but for several years the MAIS has been playing exceptional volleyball, especially at the top. The year 2020 was no different, as Jackson Academy and Hartfield Academy battled for the state championship for the third year in a row.

JA has been the MAIS bully for the past several years. The Raiders have played for the state championship every year since 2012 an d came into this season having won six of the past seven titles, including in 2019.

Hartfield Academy advanced past the first round of the playoffs for the first time in 2018, the year the Hawks won State; and has been in the finals every year since.

Jackson Academy swept its playoff matches heading into the final. So, too, did Hartfield Academy. It was expected.

The teams had met three times before in 2020. Each was close. Hartfield won the first in five at home back in August. JA took the next two, winning 2-1 in a tournament and 3-1 on its home turf at the end of September, a little more than three weeks removed from the state championship match.

The final, like the three matches before them, was competitive from the first point to the last. JA dropped the first set, 26-24, but captured the next three, 25-17, 25-21, 25-23, to repeat as state champions.

Three All-State players led the way for the victorious Raiders. Parker Bracken, the MAIS career kills and digs leader (and the reigning Mississippi Gatorade POY), capped a brilliant career by amassing 17 kills and 21 digs. Senior setter Natalie DeRusso added 31 assists and nine digs. Freshman pin Emma Robertson chipped in with six kills, 12 digs and seven aces. Robertson, 6-3 middle Anna Claire Sheffield (five blocks) and 6-0 pin Ava Ladner (seven kills) should be the backbone of the team in 2021.

“Our team was led by five seniors this year,” head coach Melissa Denson said. “When COVID hit in the spring, we made it a goal to stick together as a team in case we were able to play this fall.  We continued to work out via zoom and the girls found ways to keep a touch on the ball.  We trained throughout the summer and when the season came around we made our best attempt to play as many high level teams as possible. By playing previous state champions, this helped prepare us for playoffs and the state finals.

“Going into the championship match we knew that Hartfield would be a battle. Both teams are extremely talented and showed up to play. We lost the first set. My girls did not seem rattled and were determined to pull that match out. My seniors showed great leadership on the court and my underclassman stepped up in big moments. This team is extremely close and had one mission all season.  Their determination, bond as a team, experience from previous years, and grit earned us the championship.”

Denson said that COVID-19 struck several teams this season, including Jackson Academy.

“I feel like our team and school did everything in our power to maintain the safety of our athletes and we still got sick,” she said.  “I think that for us, and several other teams, it was not only a factor physically but also mentally.  The fear of the unknown and the fear of losing a season were always in the back of our minds. Being a student-athlete has enough obstacles without a pandemic being factored in. All of that being said, I think our team is stronger for all the adversity we had to face. We learned to be grateful for every opportunity to step on the court and be together. I remember after the state championship I cried because I was so thankful the opportunity to play was not taken from our kids. I will forever be grateful for my school and conference for that. I love this group of girls and this season and team will always hold a special place in my heart.”

Julia Dyess, an Ole Miss signee and one of seven seniors for Hartfield Academy, led the Hawks with 25 kills and 15 digs. Olivia Stegall added nine kills, eight digs and two aces. Jill Sullivan contributed 40 assists. Nikki Lawrence and Addie McNeely teamed for 31 digs.

In the MHSAA, six champions were recognized, some experienced at hoisting the trophy, others feeling that joy for the very first time.

A veteran DeSoto Central team won the 6A title in four sets over Brandon. The title was the fourth all-time for the Jaguars but first since 2015.

DeSoto (30-5) dropped the first set, 25-22, but dominated play in the final three sets, behind Amonie Silas (26 kills, nine digs and two aces), Gracie Tacker (42 assists and nine kills) and Megan Harris (28 digs and two aces). Of the team’s five losses, only one came to an in-state opponent.

“I will remember the heart, drive, and fight this team had,” head coach Margaret Falatko said.  “They were so talented and extremely fun to watch play.”

“This team was led by seven seniors,” Falatko added. “They came into the season ready to fight for a state title. As freshmen and sophomores, they made it to the championship game, but fell short both times. Last season, they were eliminated in the second round of playoffs (by the team that won state).  Having their club seasons end early really made them appreciate volleyball and the time they had on the court. They came into every practice and match ready to work hard, give it their all, and work on becoming the best they could.  This team was dedicated and motivated to finish the season on top.”

Brandon finished the year 23-7 despite playing with no seniors in the starting lineup. The Bulldogs, who were led in the final by juniors Natalie Bartholomew (13 kills and 23 digs) and Brianna Shivers (seven kills and seven blocks) and sophomore Sunni Sheppard (12 kills, 22 digs and three aces), should be the favorites to win the title in the fall.

Has there ever been a more improbable state champion than Lake Cormorant? The Gators started the season 3-8, then went a stretch from September 12 through September 29 where they lost eight matches in a row! They entered the playoffs with an overall record of 12-19 but won their final four matches to take the title, including winning five-set thrillers in the semifinals and finals!

Lake Cormorant’s five-set win over Long Beach in the finals helped ease the sting of championship match losses for the team in 2018 and 2019. All-State senior Alaijiah Rose led the way for the Gators with 22 kills, 17 digs, seven aces, three assists and two blocks. Jasmine Chacon had 35 assists, 19 digs, four kills and two aces and Annah Marshall contributed 14 digs.

Vancleave won its fourth consecutive state title with a sweep of Pontotoc for the 4A crown. Set scores were 25-12, 25-11, 25-16 in the dominating win. Setter Julianah Overstreet had 31 assists and nine digs to lead the Bulldogs. Eve Mixon contributed 18 kills, six aces and five digs.

St. Andrew’s captured its first-ever state title with a sweep of Belmont in 3A. The Saints, who finished second in 2015 and 2019, made a champion of first-year head coach Lauren Corby.

Sarah Sullivan led the way for the victors with 17 kills and 20 digs. Celestina Retumban added 21 digs and six aces. Maggie Sewell and Samantha Smith teamed for 12 big blocks.

Freshman Kerstin Moody paced Belmont with seven kills and 13 digs.

Walnut won a five-set marathon over Puckett in Class 2A to claim its first state title in program history. The Wildcats opened a 5-0 lead to start the final set behind the serving of Madison Porterfield and were never headed.

Claire Leak had 10 kills, four aces and four digs to lead Walnut. Laura Leigh Hughes contributed nine kills, four blocks and three assists.

Isabella Hanks had 12 kills to pace Puckett.

Resurrection Christian won its first state championship in any team sport by taking the Class 1A title in sweeping fashion over Hickory Flats. The Eagles trailed 12-5 in the first set and 15-4 in the second, but rallied to win each, setting the tone for the straight-set win.

Emma Godfrey led the way with 10 kills, eight assists and five aces for Resurrection. Mia Holland added 10 kills of her own, along with four aces.

Liberty North went unbeaten in Missouri

Nickname: The Show Me State
Capital city: Jefferson City
Population: 6.2 million
Year of statehood: 1821

Liberty North opened 10 years ago and has been building its volleyball program ever since. In 2018, the Eagles went 17-14-2, their best record since moving up to the state’s largest classification. Last year, the team improved to 23-10. That was pretty good, but hardly a precursor to a state championship, especially since Liberty North had never advanced beyond the district final in its existence.

Adding to the challenge: the school was quarantined because of COVID-19 from spring break on; when the Eagles did play, they had to play in masks; and they were new to a conference that already had powerhouse KC-area schools like Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit West in it.

Even so, head coach Katie Dowden was bullish about her team’s chances. She returned her stud setter, Addison Beagle; and two athletic middles in Isabel Zimmerman and Rachel Spainhour; and was adding a talented, precocious freshman, 5-11 OH Carlie Cisneros.

Liberty North ended up going 24-0 and sweeping defending Class 4 champion Nixa to win the Class 5 title, its first and the first in the newly-created classification. Dowden insists that was never part of the plan.
“We knew going into the season that our conference was tabbed as one of the toughest in the state,” she explained. Just winning the conference would be a huge accomplishment.

A 10-day stretch starting in mid-September might have led to a shift in focus from the conference to the entire state. The Eagles defeated perennial powers St. Teresa’s, Blue Springs and Lee’s Summit West over that span. None of the wins was easy, but each affirmed that Liberty North was, indeed, among the most formidable teams in Missouri.

Liberty North had its share of close calls, including a five-set win over Lee’s Summit in Sectionals, a match in which the Eagles trailed two sets to one before rallying; but the team was at its best in the state semifinals and finals, both 3-0 sweeps.

In the championship match, against a Nixa team that had experienced the pressure of a state final the season before, Liberty North fell behind 11-6 early in the first set. The deficit remained but had been cut to three points, 23-20, before the Eagles scored six of the final nine points to steal the set. Cisneros had a kill to deny Nixa on set point and Caitlyn Burns scored on the overpass kill to complete the comeback.

The next two sets went a lot smoother for Liberty North, which won 25-20, 25-16 to complete the championship sweep. Beagle led the way with 41 assists. Zimmerman recorded a double-double, with 12 kills and 11 digs. Libero Abby Christian contributed 17 digs. And Cisneros exploded for 21 kills on the left side while hitting a stunning .475.

Dowden said that the key to victory, all season long, was a focus on gratefulness in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were grateful to have ONE normal thing in our lives, be it practice or games,” she said. “Once we got rolling into the season, every day presented new challenges, but focusing on our team and being grateful to have another day together just truly culminated into a perfect season for us.”

Setter Sydney Golden had 33 assists and Jaycee Fixsen, Allie Billmyer and Taylor Golmen each had 10 or more kills in the loss for Nixa, which returns all but one of its core group for 2021.

Willard (31-3-1) won the Class 4 title in four sets over Parkway West. The Tigers’ title was their second and came 39 years after their first.

Payton Van Veen, playing on knees that had twice experienced ACL tears; had 24 kills to lead the way for Willard. Maddie Bushnell added 10 and Paige Gayer chipped in with 33 assists. Anna Pavlisin had 23 kills and 15 digs to lead Parkway West, which was seeking its first state title in its second championship match appearance. Fellow senior Carly Kuehl added 11 kills and 15 assists.

Serena Sundell, a Kansas State basketball signee, had 26 kills and three aces to lead Maryville past Central of Park Hills for the Class 3 title, the first volleyball championship in school history. Macy Loe added 40 assists in the sweep for the Spoofhounds, who finished 21-2. Sundell and Loe are two of seven seniors for Maryville, which was 12-15-1 in the year before they arrived but went 67-21-5 over their final three seasons.

O’Fallon Christian (8-7) needed five sets and overtime to defeat Valle Catholic (30-6-2) for the Class 2 title. The Eagles overcame three match points to capture the first state title in program history. The win capped a 2020 season in which Christian started 2-7 before winning its final six matches.

Senior middle Belle Monaco had 29 kills despite suffering an ankle injury in the fourth set for the Eagles. Addison Lyon, one of the best setters in the country, added 31 assists and 17 kills.

Riley Siebert led Valle with 26 kills. Ella Bertram added 20 and Sam Loida contributed 67 assists.

Advance won its third straight small-school crown by downing Lesterville in four sets. Advance (35-1-2) had gone 44 straight matches dating to 2018 without losing a set to a Class 1 school.

Nyah Wilson had 23 kills to lead the victorious Hornets. Alyssa Miles added 15 and Meadow Morse chipped in with 13.

Reese Gray and Mallory Polk teamed for 31 kills in the loss for Lesterville.

Nickname: The Treasure State
Capital city: Helena
Population: 1.1 million
Year of statehood: 1889

One year ago, Huntley Project defeated Joliet in five sets to capture the Montana Class B title. The championship win was the third in a row for Project and also set two other records. The school and head coach Iona Stookey now had 12 titles, tied for most all-time in state history. And the win was the Red Devils’ 100th in a row, breaking their own state record previously set from 2003 to 2005.

Joliet, which had never won a state title, was determined to make 2020 the year of the J-Hawks. Colette Webber’s team opened the season with a five-set win over Huntley, which snapped the Red Devils’ 101-match unbeaten streak; and they closed the year with a sweep of Huntley, securing their first title and denying Huntley stand-alone championship No. 13.

“This year’s title was the culmination of the last five years of going to State,” said Webber. “We got second last year, so five of my starters that were coming back had some great success to build on. They wanted it and knew this was the year to try to take it.”

Eleven years ago, Joliet moved from Class C to Class B. The J-Hawks were, and still are, one of the smallest schools in the classification.

“It was tough competition in Class B,” Webber said. “I could see we had our work cut out for us if we were going to compete with the better teams, so we just worked hard, played Club, open gyms, team camps in the summer and whatever it took to be able to play with the better teams. It took a while to be successful but I had a lot of girls buy in and work hard.”

In order to win the state title, Joliet needed to defeat Huntley Project twice in the state tournament. The J-Hawks won in four sets in the undefeated semifinals of the double elimination tournament and clinched the crown 16 hours later with the 25-18, 25-21, 25-17 sweep.

Makenna Bushman had a match-high 17 kills for Joliet, while adding 11 kills and two blocks, the last of which secured the title. Skyler Wright added nine kills and 17 digs. Merrin Schwend contributed 28 assists. All three are seniors.

Webber said the win that will stay with her the longest from this past season was the first one over Huntley.

“We finally beat them in 5 and it was more emotional than winning State in some ways,” she explained. “I think it was also so special because at that point, we didn’t know how many games we were going to get to play because of COVID.”

Helena Capital won its third straight Class AA title, outlasting previously undefeated Great Falls C.M. Russell in five sets. The 16-0 Bruins have now won a Class AA record 71 consecutive matches.

Capital led two sets to one and 21-17 in the fourth until a late CMR surge sent the match to a fifth set, but the Bruins led the decisive stanza start to finish to send their six seniors out with another title.

Audrey Hofer, one of three senior stars for coach Rebecca Cleveland’s squad, had 47 assists and 14 digs to lead Capital. Senior middle Paige Bartsch added 28 kills, 13 digs and three blocks while twin sister Dani Bartsch concluded her career with a 17-kill, 16-dig effort.

CMR had been seeking its first-ever state volleyball crown.

Billings Central won its third Class A title in four years by sweeping Columbia Falls in the Class A final. Corvallis defeated Central last year for the title.

Senior Cindy Gray led the way for the Rams with 14 kills and three blocks. Maria Stewart tallied six kills and 30 assists and Grace Zeier had 20 digs.

Columbia Falls, seeking its first title since winning back to back in 2015 and 2016, was paced by Madysen Hoerner’s 13 kills.

Bridger won its 11th state title all-time, holding off defending champion Manhattan Christian in four sets for the Class C crown. Earlier in the day Manhattan Christian had defeated the Scouts to force the “if necessary” match, which sealed Bridger’s state supremacy.

Bridger used dominant offensive efforts from Emily Adkins (22 kills) and Jenna Kallevig (eight kills) and 33 digs from Kyra Kroll to capture its first title since 2004.

Skutt celebrates its victory

Nickname: The Cornhusker State
Capital city: Lincoln
Population: 1.9 million
Year of statehood: 1867

Amidst all of the uncertainty surrounding whether the COVID-19 pandemic would allow Nebraska high school volleyball to both start and end its 2020 season, when the state tournament finally arrived, the biggest surprise was that there were no surprises.

All six top-seeded teams won titles. Those teams weren’t just dominant over four days in early November; their combined season-long records were an incredible 184-4!

Omaha Skutt Catholic was one of the six favorites to take home a state title. The SkyHawks (35-1) tied a state record by winning their sixth consecutive championship in Class B.

After winning a fifth straight title in 2019, head coach Renee Saunders and her team, knowing that six critical contributors would be returning, set their sights beyond the state. They wanted a national title and signed up for two national tournaments to help them in that quest. But then COVID-19 hit, putting even in-state play in jeopardy, and the SkyHawks had to adjust.

“We made a pact to be the last team standing and used that to motivate us,” Saunders said. “Having a season during a pandemic, it was very day to day.  We tried to emphasize that, if your season was halted tomorrow, did you do your best up to that point?  I think that mentality helped us to live in the moment and truly focus on getting better each and every day.”

Skutt went 30-1 in the regular season. The team’s only blemish came at the end of September, a 2-1 tournament loss to Class A Lincoln Southwest. The SkyHawks rode a 20-match winning streak, during which they’d lost only one set, into the state tournament. They made quick work of two opponents to make the final, only to lose the first set of the championship match to Norris and its talented trio of setter Maisie Boesiger and hitters Ella Waters and Kalli Kroecker.

Nebraska prep volleyball guru Mike Patterson wrote in the Omaha World-Herald that the set loss seemed to infuriate Skutt. The SkyHawks opened Game 2 on a 13-0 run and went on to win three straight to claim the title. Lindsay Krause, one of the top few players in the senior class and the national HS player of the year, punctuated the championship with her match-high 30th kill on match point.

Allie Gray (58 assists), Ava Heyne (13 kills), Shayla McCormick (18 digs and four aces) and Bre Skala (14 digs) also had big days for Skutt.

“I will cherish each and every moment I had with them,” Saunders said. “In the summer we didn’t know if we would even get a chance to play.  Then as we got closer to fall, it looked like we would get a chance.  Once we started going it was so exciting and the gym energy was great. As matches started and we got into a rhythm, it was so much fun.  This team was special and they were a joy to coach and be around daily.”

Elkhorn South

After the state championships, Patterson ranked Skutt as his top team regardless of class, but both Elkhorn South (Class A champions) and Wahoo (undefeated Class C-1 champions) also made strong cases to be No. 1.

Elkhorn South avenged an upset loss to Papillion-La Vista South in the first round of last year’s state tournament by sweeping three close sets from the Titans in the Class A championship match. Kylee Weeks and Rylee Gray combined for 37 kills to help the Storm (30-1) capture their first volleyball title in program history. Setter Madi Woodin and libero Estella Zatechka also were standouts, but head coach Chelsea Potter said that everyone who played in the final made significant contributions.

“One of my favorite things is to see them celebrating a play by pointing (to teammates) in acknowledgement of their work during a rally,” she said.

Potter said that more than winning the state title, she would remember the heart that the players and her coaches poured into the season.

“Our mindset this season was to take one week at a time and focus on playing with grateful hearts since we had so much uncertainty with how long our season would last,” she explained. “Taking the season in small weekly chunks, we focused on ‘winning the week.’ 

“When we approached the state tournament, we focused on one match at a time, five points at a time. The girls bought into focusing on what we could control, and playing with joy to be together since they experienced losing their club seasons and watching other athletes not have the opportunities to compete in the spring.”

Ava LeGrand had 37 assists and Lauren Medeck and Stella Adeyemi combined for 27 kills in the loss for Papio South, which won the state title in 2019.

Junior Mya Larson had 41 kills to send Wahoo (35-0) past St. Paul, 15-12 in the fifth, for the Class C-1 title. The title was the third for the Warriors over the past four years.

Kelsie Sears supported Larson’s effort with 16 kills of her own. Elle Glock, a USC pledge, delivered 62 assists, just five shy of the C-1 record.

Olivia Poppert had 43 assists and Josie Jakubowski added 20 kills and 15 digs in the close loss for St. Paul, which finished as state runner-up for the second straight year.

Lutheran Northeast (33-1) edged crosstown rival Norfolk Catholic in a five-set thriller for the Class C-2 title. The Eagles dropped the first two sets before rallying to win the next three to claim victory. The title was the third all-time for Lutheran Northeast but first since winning two straight in 2010 and 2011.

Rebecca Gebhardt had 31 kills and 24 digs to pace the victors, while Chloe Spence recorded a triple-double, with 24 assists, 10 kills and 10 digs.

Channatee Robles had 19 kills and 27 digs to lead Norfolk Catholic, which was making its first appearance in a state championship final.

Pleasanton capped an undefeated season with its first state championship in 44 years in Class D-1. The Bulldogs swept Fremont Bergan for the title behind Natalie Siegel, who dished out 44 assists and helped Pleasanton hit .422 for the match. Kaitlyn Linder and Isabelle Paitz teamed for 40 kills.

Bergan had ousted Pleasanton in the state semifinals the past two seasons, but the two teams met for the girls basketball title in March, with Pleasanton prevailing, and that seemed to give the Bulldogs the edge in this one.

Lauren Baker, the team’s lone senior contributor, led Bergan with 13 kills.

Diller-Odell trailed 7-0 to Chambers/Wheeler Central in Game 5 of the Class D-2 championship match before storming back to capture its second consecutive state title.

A 9-2 run fueled by CWC errors helped the Griffins knot the score at 9-9, but CWC went on a run of its own to fight off four match points. Tied at 14-14, Diller-Odell turned to Ava Lovitt, whose back-to-back kills clinched the crown.

Karli Heidemann had 29 kills and 20 digs for the champs. Sister Addison Heidemann had 35 assists.

Morgan Ramsey and Tessa Metschke teamed for 35 kills in the loss for CWC. Ryan Haburchak finished with 45 assists.

Nickname: The Silver State
Capital city: Carson City
Population: 3.1 million
Year of statehood: 1864

In July, the Nevada Interscholastic Activities Association (NIAA) announced a revised schedule for high school sports in the upcoming academic year. The year would be truncated and split into three, six-week seasons, with the fall season, including volleyball, to begin practice on February 20, with the first match no earlier than March 5 and the last match no later than April 10.

The winter season was scheduled to conclude on February 20, but it has yet to even get started except for skiing, bowling and flag football. On Monday, Governor Steve Sisolak extended the current statewide pause for 30 days due to high community spread and strained hospitals. While he did not address high school sports, said “it is believed to be thought the state will not allow contact sports such as basketball, wrestling and football until that pause is lifted.”

How the pause will impact volleyball is, as yet, unknown. The Clark County School District (CCSD), which runs public schools throughout Greater Las Vegas, has already announced that its schools will not participate in winter sports at all this school year.

As of now, volleyball’s six week “fall season” remains on, despite COVID-19 being worse now in the Silver State than it was in July. The NIAA has announced that it does not expect any changes to the practice/competition schedule for volleyball.

Amy Schlauder, who coached Durango to the 4A championship match in 2019, said that teams will only compete within their conference, there would be no preseason matches or tournaments and no state tournament, although an additional week is contemplated for a playoff of some sort. She also said that the CCSD, which oversees Durango, has not made a determination whether its schools will be permitted to participate in the “fall season.”

New Hampshire-champion Bedord

Nickname: The Granite State
Capital city: Concord
Population: 1.4 million
Year of statehood: 1788

New Hampshire’s motto is “Live Free or Die.” It is in that spirit that the Granite State played on in 2020 while bordering states all more or less hit pause.

Not that New Hampshire’s play didn’t change in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of an 18-match regular season followed by playoffs, teams were allowed a maximum of nine and had to play in their pod. Once the regular season was over, teams were randomly assigned tournament seeding within their pod and then crossovers happened after the first round.

Hollis-Brookline made it to the Division I championship match for the 14th time in the 20-year history of the school but lost to a Bedford team that reached the finals for the second time in three years, the only two finals appearances in the history of the school. The Bulldogs, which defeated Hollis-Brookline in four sets during the regular season, went one better in the championship match to cap a 15-0 season and win their first state title.

“In a year that was anything but normal, we decided to compete like it was,” Bedford head coach Anna McGann said. “The masks, distancing and sanitization were all new but the talent of our team, the hard work and time they put into this sport, the dedication and desire to win…it was all there. Focusing on our goals and canceling out any other noise that would stop us from getting there is exactly how we did it.”

Junior setter Caleigh O’Connell and senior middle Lindsey Pierson led the way for Bedford, which trailed 23-18 in the first set versus H-B before rallying to win in overtime. O’Connell, a three-year starter, had 31 assists and six kills. Pierson, who will play next year for Stonehill College, contributed nine kills and three blocks. Junior Julia Giroux had 14 kills and four aces. Junior Hayley Salis chipped in with 18 digs and three aces.

Hollis coach Becky Balfour said that playing a season during COVID was “interesting to say the least.”

“Every day, I told my players to savor every drill, every practice, every match,” she continued. “There were other teams who had to drop out due to Covid, so I encouraged them to enjoy the season while it lasted. Fortunately, we stayed Covid free and made it to the Ship! It was stressful but I feel blessed that we had a season.”

McGann conveyed a similar message.

“This season gave us plenty of hurdles to overcome and various hoops to jump through, but at the same time it blessed us with so many more incredible individual and team accomplishments,” she said. “The noise outside of the gym always felt louder than anything we dealt with once we stepped on the court. It made you re-appreciate the sport of volleyball, your teammates, coaches, opponents, officials. We truly appreciated being in the gym every single day because we were hyperaware that at any minute it could all be taken away. It strengthened our ability to focus, compete, play and, in turn, win.”

Gilford overcame a 7-0 hole to start the Division II championship match and went on to sweep John Stark. The title was the third in a row for the Golden Eagles and the 17th all-time in volleyball for the school.

Kate Sullivan was a force at the net for the victors. Serena Pugh dominated in the back row.

Lilli Stogner had a team-high seven kills for Stark. Paige Hamel added six and Brooke Patnode chipped in with 15 assists.

Newfound rallied from a 22-18 Game 3 deficit versus Trinity to sweep to the Division III title, its first in school history. Paulina Huckins was a catalyst throughout and helped sparked the rally late that made the Bears’ sweep possible.

Nickname: The Garden State
Capital city: Trenton
Population: 8.9 million
Year of statehood: 1787

New Jersey did not play high school volleyball in the fall. While traditional fall outdoor sports did have seasons, volleyball was pushed to a new “Season 3,” which was set to take place between the winter and spring seasons.

Originally, volleyball was to have a two-month window, from February to April, with no overlap with winter or spring sports. But when the winter season was delayed, the New Jersey State Interscholastic Athletic Association pushed the volleyball start date back two weeks, releasing a calendar that saw basketball and volleyball overlapping by a week.

“I am optimistic that we will have our season, as basketball started this past week,” Old Tappan head coach Melissa Landeck said.

One month ago, the NJSIAA released its spring sports start date and will overlap volleyball by three weeks.

“They wanted to make sure they gave spring sports a full season being they didn’t have one in 2020,” said Immaculate Heart Academy head coach Maria Nolan.

The volleyball end date will now be April 20, with playoffs beginning on April 9.

So, as of now, volleyball will go on in the Garden State, with a little squeeze and overlap on each end. Teams can play no more than 16 matches. There also will be a shortened “state tournament,” with advancement not possible beyond a Sectional Tournament.

“I’m wondering how it will all play out,” Nolan said.  “At Immaculate Heart Academy, we have one small gym with freshmen, JV and varsity teams.  I’ve yet to hear how many we can have practicing at a time.”

Club teams are practicing currently in New Jersey and there is potential for conflict between high school and club once March 1 arrives. Landeck did not that several clubs in New Jersey are respecting the high school season by “shutting down” (her words) for those seven weeks.

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