Solon’s first task in taking on Harlan was figuring out how to defend the Cyclones’ 6-foot-3 all-state hitter Jess Schaben. The Spartans used a rare triple block at the net and deployed the back row accordingly.
That all sounds well enough, but to pull it off takes an incredible effort by the defense, and that’s what the Spartans got in a 25-11, 25-20, 25-20 sweep. Solon (32-4) moves to Friday’s Class 4A semifinal at 1:45 p.m. against either Sioux City Heelan or West Delaware. It is the first time the Spartans have reached a volleyball semifinal.
“It’s only our second time making it to state, so we just wanted to come out hard and come out with everything we had,” senior Kelsey Cave said.
“It’s not unexpected from this team in terms of how hard they work and the mental toughness that I think we’ve shown in the match,” Solon coach Peter Gustin said. “But it is in the sense of a big state tournament like this to come out that strong. The girls worked so hard tonight every point.”
The momentum was established immediately as Solon ran off the first 12 points of the first set with Kelsey Hinrichs serving.
“That really settled our nerves,” libero Rylee Smith said.
Two of the first three points included acrobatic digs by Smith, the shortest player on the court but perhaps the most important in the match.
“Rylee is fearless,” Gustin said. “Six-two, 6-8, whoever it is, Rylee is going to get down low and get that ball up. That set the tone for us immediately.”
Schaben, a sophomore, came in with 401 kills, 38 blocks and a .424 kill efficiency. She’s the real deal, and Solon game-planned for her all week, even using coaches in practice to simulate her size and athletic ability.
“We put up three blocks on her all the time and it worked out that the lineup had her on Jordan Runge, so Jordan Runge was blocking her and she did a great job tonight,” Cave said. “We knew it was going to be hard because she’s really tall and she’s really athletic.”
“She’s huge,” Smith said. “We knew we had to step up. Our block was huge. Once we know where our block is, we know exactly where we’re supposed to go. Our blockers make it very easy on us as defenders.”
And it doesn’t hurt to have someone like Smith ready to give up her body for the good of the team and dive for every possible ball.
The final two sets were more competitive, but in each instance Solon pulled away midway through the set.
“Especially when it gets to the end and a lot of pressure builds up, that’s when we know we have to start communicating more,” Smith said. “The more communication there is the easier it is on everyone.”
A string of booming kills by Cave put Solon ahead to stay in the second set. Cave, Jordan Smith and Runge each had a game-high 10 kills and Hinrichs eight. Runge had four blocks. Setter Emma Rickels, who was on all night, made 36 assists. Rylee Smith had a game high 15 digs. Hinrichs had three aces.
Solon’s defense held Harlan to a .036 hitting efficiency. Solon’s kill percentage was a much better .364.
A play in the third set epitomized the effort put forth by the Spartans all evening long. A Harlan kill came across and one player got a hand on it but sent it backward. Smith chased it and hit it again and then three players ran into each other diving at the back of the court in hot pursuit. They didn’t score the point but that’s exactly the kind of hustle Solon showed throughout the match.
This is not a team with a star, although it has a plethora of talented players, nor is it a team with an apparent weakness. The Spartans may not have served the ball as well as Gustin wanted, but they played like they were all on a mission.
“There is no relaxing in a match like this, and we talked about that,” Gustin said. “During the middle part of the season when we really started to grow, we were playing our best volleyball but we were still tentative. You’ve got to be assertive in a match like this. You can’t wait for them to make a mistake.”