EMC well represented at state volleyball
It all fell into place for Waverly on Saturday.
Behind a low number of hitting errors, the Vikings played one of their best volleyball matches of the season en route to a sweep of Beatrice for a district championship.
Meanwhile, Elkhorn, on the road, defeated a talented Seward team looking to get back to state.
The Vikings (26-7) and Antlers (21-15) entered those matches as battle-tested as any team in Class B.
That’s life in the Eastern Midlands Conference, which had four teams punch tickets to this week’s state volleyball tournament. Norris (24-11) is joining Waverly and Elkhorn in the eight-team Class B field, while Gretna (22-7) will carry the EMC flag in Class A.
“I’m not surprised at all,” Waverly coach Terri Neujahr said of the EMC’s representation at state. “You look back years and years of the state tournament, you’ll see three, four, sometimes five EMC teams make the state tournament.
“For us, it’s a battle every time you step onto the court. There’s just no easy games and I think we are all very respective of each other for that and we all know that just being in the EMC, that makes us all better and prepares us for the end of the season and the opportunity to play at state.”
Waverly, Norris, Elkhorn and Gretna took turns beating each other over the course of the season. Norris, which is back at state for the first time since 2014, won the conference tournament. Bennington, a state tournament team a year ago, also reached the district final round. Former EMC member Elkhorn South, now in the Metro Conference, also has had a state presence.
“Playing in the EMC and knowing it’s a grind, it just doesn’t prepare yo u skill-wise and for the tempo of the game, and for the speed you have to play at, it really prepares you mentally, as well, and just how focused you have to be,” Neujahr said. “The mental part of the game is probably the most under-coached, under-taught part of athletics, but it’s something that we have worked on this year.”
Gretna is in a unique situation this year. Because they’re fresh off moving to Class A, the Dragons played a Class B-heavy schedule. Gretna was not exposed to a lot of Class A teams — though it did play Lincoln Pius X and Millard North — but the Dragons didn’t miss a beat in district play, sweeping Omaha Westside and Kearney to reach state.
“We were a little concerned moving to (Class) A; whether or not we’d be prepared for Class A without playing a lot of teams in the Heartland or Metro conferences,” Gretna coach Mike Brandon said. “But I thought the level of play in the EMC would probably be fine and it has. The top of the EMC has been very challenging for us and that’s given us a lot of good competition.”
That showed late in the season when Gretna, ranked seventh in A, pushed second-ranked Millard North to five sets.
“Volleyball is volleyball,” Brandon said. “Sometimes the Class A schools are a little bit bigger, maybe a little bit deeper, but you don’t play a ton of kids like you do in basketball. If you’ve got a good top-six, -seven, -eight kids, you can compete with just about anybody and I think the (EMC) schools have those top-six, -seven, -eight kids.”
That includes No. 4 Waverly, which got the monkey of its back this past weekend. The Vikings had lost in four straight district finals before Saturday. Now they’re hoping to build off a strong regular season that included wins against Omaha Marian and Millard South.
“Honestly, I think, now that we’re in, they feel like, ‘Gosh, the pressure’s off,’” Neujahr said. “We kind of won the big one here, the one we had a little pressure on ourselves for. This group of kids is just really loosey-goosey. They are so fun to be around.”