Ratings and reputations mean nothing at state tournaments.
Boxes of popcorn sometimes last longer than top-ranked teams.
Appleton North players understand this, but the Lightning enters the WIAA state boys’ volleyball tournament confident it belongs among Wisconsin’s best and eager to prove itself worthy of the No. 1 ranking in the state Boys Volleyball Coaches Poll.
The Lightning is looking to make school history in Milwaukee. Appleton North has never won a state championship in five state appearances and has reached the semifinals only once, in 2006. Schools from the Milwaukee area typically dominate the state tourney and no Fox Valley squad has won the state title since Kaukauna in 1982.
North, though, might be skilled and hungry enough to break that pattern.
“Some teams don’t like it when a team from the North is ranked No. 1,” said Appleton North outside hitter Brandon Miller. “That adds a little pressure, but that’s fine. We know we’re one of eight great teams there. We have to put that ranking aside and come with our best every set.”
North (31-0) has held down the No. 1 ranking the entire season and is the only unbeaten team in a field once again heavily populated with Milwaukee schools.
“Making the state tournament is a great, great accomplishment,” said Appleton North coach Mike Maass. “But this year, the kids want a little more. Their reaction after beating Kimberly (in the sectional finals) was that it was just another step and that qualifying for state wasn’t their ultimate goal.”
It has been a difficult, emotional week for the Lightning. Dave Eastman, the father of Drew Eastman, one of Appleton North’s top players, passed away Sunday due to an apparent heart attack. His funeral will be held today at Faith Lutheran Church at 2:30 p.m. and several of the Lightning players planned to attend.
It’s tough to tell what impact the tragedy will have on the Lightning’s performance at the state tourney, but Maass thinks it has further unified an already cohesive team.
“I think the kids have handled it probably about as well as you could expect,” said Maass. “We’ve rallied together as a team. That’s what a team is about — being there for your teammate.”
Appleton North has 11 seniors on its roster, including Drew Eastman. Some had been coached in other sports by Dave Eastman, a popular figure in the North athletic community.
“It’s a very close team and everyone has pulled together,” said Maass. “These kids know each other not just through volleyball, but through playing baseball together and basketball when they were younger. They’ve been hanging out together for years, and the parents all know each other. We have a good, strong family within our volleyball program.”
Appleton North opens state tournament play against a Germantown team it beat 2-0 at the Homestead Invitational on Oct. 20. However, the Warhawks played that match without one of their best players, 6-foot-8 Luke Fischer, a University of Indiana basketball recruit.
“They’re big and we struggled a little against them,” said Appleton North outside hitter Ryan Albers. “But if we play our game, hopefully we’ll get past them. We have a lot of seniors on this team and we’ve been waiting for this opportunity since we were freshmen.”
The Lightning is a deep, diversified team. Senior setter Connor Gross has plenty of hitting options in Albers, Drew Eastman, Miller and Connor Seiler, and North can play practically any style.
“Our strength, by far, is our hitting,” said Albers. “We can hit from the right, the left side and the middle. Everyone on this team can hit.”
Maass likes his team’s versatility and exceptional depth.
“I don’t know if we’re a great defensive team or even necessarily a great offensive team,” said Maass. “But we’re good at everything. We can block and hit, and have good athleticism. I think our strength is our depth. We have really good players all through our roster. I don’t know if you can focus on one of our players, because if you do, the others are going to have a field day.”
Marquette (21-7) is the defending state champion and is ranked fifth in the state poll. Germantown (23-8) is rated 10th, while Burlington (No. 2), Wauwatosa East (No. 3) and Muskego (No. 7) are also ranked in the top 10.
“Being ranked No. 1 all season, we have high expectations,” said Miller. “We’ve put the time in and worked very hard to be on top. We’re ready to go.”
— Tim Froberg: 920-993-1000, ext. 423, or email@example.com; On Twitter @twfroberg