The O’Gorman volleyball team would have been happy coasting through the season under the radar, continuing to pile up wins – but not drawing too much attention otherwise.
Keeping a low profile was easy for the Knights (15-0) throughout a sub-.500 campaign in 2010, and even during last season when the program made its first state tournament appearance in seven years.
Unfortunately, when you’re undefeated and the No. 1-ranked team in Class AA, anonymity isn’t a luxury you can expect.
“It’s exciting,” said middle hitter Allie Vognild, one of five seniors on the team. “We’ve worked so hard, so it’s nice to see that pay off.”
It hasn’t been all about winning, however. The Knights will be the first to admit that while their record is perfect, they’re not playing perfect volleyball. And although victories in September and October are great for keeping confidence up and raising the bar, it’s not the primary goal.
“I don’t know that we had any set goals,” said senior outside hitter Sam Foley. “Our expectation was to come out, play the best we can play and never be satisfied.”
The Knights have done well to keep that mindset as they head into tonight’s showdown with No. 2 Roosevelt. A win tonight would mean a season sweep of the other three Sioux Falls schools – a solid feat considering the Rough Riders and Washington have been among the top-ranked teams in the state nearly every week this season.
“We don’t necessarily put one team on top,” said senior outside/middle hitter Sierra Kloth. “We approach it as if each team is the hardest team to play.”
‘It’s still surreal’
For what it’s worth, the level of success to this point wasn’t entirely expected. The Knights were 12-12 a season ago and are two-years removed from an 8-15 season.
“It’s still surreal,” said senior outside hitter Kelsey Pudenz. “We were so bad sophomore year.”
Added Vognild: “It used to be, ‘We’re playing these hard teams, we’re going to get beat in three.'”
Thus, learning how to win – and how to enjoy it – has been part of the journey. For instance, a week in September gave the Knights a sense of where they stacked up with matches against then-No. 1 Aberdeen Central, second-ranked Roosevelt and a formidable Washington team in the Warriors’ gym. Until then, Aberdeen had yet to drop a set, Roosevelt was undefeated against in-state teams and Washington had won five of six. None of that seemed to matter as O’Gorman came away unscathed, but it did mean that the Knights were on the radar.
“You have a target on your back. You’d think it’d be so fun, but it’s more stressful,” said Pudenz. “Before, we were so used to being under the radar and I feel like we were an overlooked team. Now everyone is on you. Everyone wants to beat you. You can’t overlook anyone. You can’t afford to have an off night.”
While an off night can have different meanings for different teams, O’Gorman has managed to pick up the majority of the slack on a nightly basis with no go-to player pacing the group.
Lauren Witte leads the team in kills with 133, but 6-0 sophomore hitter Taryn Kloth (124) and Vognild (110) have helped create a balanced attack with sophomore setter Dalee Stene dishing out 461 assists through 15 matches.
“O’Gorman figured out early this season what it takes to find success on the volleyball court – team cohesiveness and trust,” Washington coach LaDawn Nesje said. “They don’t have one main superstar on their team, so each of them takes responsibility for their small part in the grander scheme.”
On defense, a staple for O’Gorman volleyball over the years, five players have at least 100 digs, led by senior libero Erin Beacom’s 148. Meanwhile, the Knights are serving 94 percent as a team – a solid mark for a group taking advantage of rare height that has allowed them to be more aggressive in all facets.
“It’s kind of nice to see, ‘Yeah, we can do that now,'” said Kolbeck. “It’s more of a complete game for us.”
The last time O’Gorman was crowned state volleyball champions was 2002, which seems like ages ago for the five seniors who have seen the program at a low point. The level-headed Knights realize they’re working their way into the role of favorite with next month’s state tournament approaching, but that hasn’t changed the approach they brought into the season.
“I think one reason we’ve done so well is we don’t put ourselves at the top,” said Vognild.
“We’re not invincible,” added Sierra Kloth.
And while ending the drought is a key goal, it doesn’t fulfill what they’d like to walk away with. There’s a bigger picture – creating an identity for what O’Gorman volleyball can be moving forward.
“Obviously, there’s always room for improvement,” said Foley. “But right now we have really good chemistry within each other, so then it carries out to the whole team.”
The future of the Knights lies in a group of underclassmen with raw talent and more height – a nice combination that could carry on the tone set by strong senior leadership. A state title is something that the seniors have entertained as a possibility, though it may not be the key to a successful season.
“They’ve had the opportunity to see the program when it wasn’t so hot. Sometimes when you see that, you have that drive to make it better. You can’t teach that,” said Kolbeck. “It’s a decision that these kids have made. It doesn’t matter how good of a coach you are, it’s about changing something that you want to make better. And that’s what makes this group so special. They want something better than what’s been in place. This is their program. I’m just along for the ride.”