This season has not gone the way the Natrona County volleyball team completely hoped it would.
An anticipated start to the season slowed to a considerable crawl when the Fillies lost five of six in the middle of the season, including a 1-2 start to Class 4A West Conference play.
Through unexpected problems and lineup tweaking, the Fillies scrapped their way into the state tournament as the West Conference’s No. 2 seed, a testament to the grit and determination for a team that needed two five-set victories in two days just to get to this point.
“And we were competitive against Kelly (Walsh),” head coach Michael Botkin said, referring to the regional championship game. “There’s a reason they are undefeated in conference play and at regionals. I think if we can be competitive against them, then we can be competitive against the East teams too.”
In the regional final, the Fillies rallied from 12-3 down in the first set to take a 23-21 lead. Ultimately, however, the Trojans answered and won the set 27-25. Kelly Walsh rode out the final two sets, answering every rallying cry the Fillies had to complete the sweep.
That was without NC standout sophomore Kate Robertson for the most part, who was limited in the championship match due to an awkward landing going for a dig.
But the Fillies are at full strength going into this weekend’s state tournament.
“Everybody is healthy,” Botkin said. “Kate, after that spill, is healthy. She’s fine, everybody’s good.”
Natrona County matches up with the No. 3 seed from the East Conference in the first round, which happens to be three-time defending state champion Cheyenne East. The Thunderbirds defeated Natrona County in straight sets during the first weekend of the season.
Botkin recognized while East may be missing a few pieces from last season, the T-Birds still return a powerful lineup with the potential to win a fourth straight title.
“You look at it and there’s a reason why they are the three-time defending state champions,” he said. “That’s still the nucleus of the team, minus a couple girls.”
But the close regional final has Botkin excited. While the Fillies were not able to come away with the victory, they were able to pressure a team that finished undefeated in the conference.
After reviewing the film, he’s especially excited at the rotations and lineup to which Fillies have adapted. He expects they will stay with, essentially, the same recipe they have had since the VolleyBowl on Oct. 19.
“I think you’re going to see a lot of what we did this last weekend,” Botkin said. “There might be one minor tweak with one kid in the back row, but other than that, if we don’t have it by now then we’re not going to.”
The big rivalry match with Kelly Walsh that marks the end of the regular season every year may have been the turning point for Natrona County.
Junior standout Grace DuBay has fully immersed herself in the rotation with any initial nerves now gone. Just one week after being medically cleared for competition after an eight-month absence because of a knee injury, DuBay adds another dimension to the Fillies.
The senior group of Kristy Dick, Bre Kelly, Leland Mooren, Kylie Watson and Emilie Fittje all performed well at regionals. All of them are comfortable in their roles going into the state tournament.
“We have a lot of weapons and you look at the bench, we’re deep on the bench,” Botkin said. “Any girl can come in and help us at any given time.”
Despite the rough patch in the middle of the season, Natrona County has won eight of its last 10 matches. Both losses were at the hands of Kelly Walsh. While the Fillies may not be favored to win the program’s seventh state title, they are just three wins away from doing just that.
But Botkin has this team focus on each individual game. No gold can be won without winning the first match. And without the burden of monumental expectations, these Fillies can run free.
“Do what we do good and we’ll be OK,” Botkin told his team at practice. “If we can keep our enthusiasm and energy up we can compete with anybody.”