One of the goals the Kelly Walsh volleyball team set for itself coming into the season was an undefeated conference season.
The Trojans were 9-0 in Class 4A West Conference action last year going into the VolleyBowl before Natrona County pulled off the upset. That was the same position they found themselves in on Thursday night, except this year had a much different result.
Kelly Walsh was dominant, trailing just once over three sets, in a sweep of the cross-town rival Fillies (25-17, 25-12, 25-17) at Kelly Walsh Gymnasium.
Despite the emotions of a rivalry match, one that Kelly Walsh had not won since Madison Vinich’s freshman season, the Trojans kept a level head leading into their regular-season finale.
“I guess that means that we’re just No. 1 seed at regionals so that makes it easier for us, but it still means we’ve got to fight,” Vinich said. “We don’t know what to expect from the East Conference, but it just kind of makes us feel confident going into regionals.”
Vinich and sophomore teammate Corin Carruth tied for match-high honors with nine kills.
That’s been a trend for this year’s Trojans more so than in previous ones. Head coach Jeff Barkell said earlier this season that the biggest difference with this year’s team is selflessness. Vinich is always near the team’s lead in terms of kills, but aside from her it has been a revolving door of attack.
After Vinich’s 282 kills this year there is Carruth’s 178, sophomore Danilynn Schell’s 173, senior Maddison Dedic’s 165, senior Jill Phipps’ 104 and junior Hadley Lloyd’s 74.
They average outscoring opponents 24.3-17.1 and are 29-4 (10-0 in conference) heading to regionals next week.
“It’s really nice to see them that when they get a ball down they get more confidence in themselves,” Vinich said. “As a teammate it just makes me really happy for them to know that they can do that and we can depend on them. Knowing that they feel that too, and they’re confident enough to put a ball down another time and another time so we’re not always depending on one person.”
For the third consecutive season the Trojans go into the Class 4A West Regional as the top seed. Considering their undefeated run through the conference during the season, it’s not unthinkable that the Trojans will also win the regional to earn their fourth No. 1 seed in a row heading into the state tournament.
Natrona County (18-13, 6-4), on the other hand, awaits its fate. The Fillies will earn the No. 2 seed at regionals if either Green River or Evanston lose just one game this weekend, which one inevitably will because they play each other on Saturday. If either of those teams sweeps the weekend, that will force a tie.
The Fillies came into this year’s VolleyBowl on a five-match winning streak but exited a defeated team in more way than one.
Last season’s VolleyBowl win gave them confidence to nearly beat Kelly Walsh for the regional championship. This team needed a signature win for their confidence and came up short. Their disappointment was evident in the sunken shoulders and dejected hugs after Thursday’s match.
But it wasn’t all bad news for the Fillies. Junior standout Grace DuBay made her triumphant return to the court after being sidelined for eight months with a significant knee injury.
DuBay’s return ignited the Natrona County crowd and her teammates. With a sleeve and brace covering the majority of her right leg, she was still the energetic outside hitter the team was used to. She dove for digs with little thought for her knee’s health and showed no hesitation when going up to spike. She finished with three kills.
Just like the rest of her team, DuBay was ultimately optimistic after Thursday’s loss. She knows now the season could end at any moment and they’ll have to be better.
“They’re one of the best teams in the state and I was a little nervous, you know,” DuBay said, “but it was a great team to come back for, I can see what I need to work on for regionals and what we can as a team. It just a really great game for me to evaluate after eight months of being a little rusty.”
The Trojans know who they need to be at this time of year. And after multiple years of falling short, this has to be it.
“I just hope we go out with no regrets because we’ve been in the state championship twice and lost so I hope that we can finish this out good,” Vinich said.