Classes had just adjourned for the day at Kelly Walsh as students ambled through the hallways. Through the cacophony echoing across hard linoleum, the door to the gym opened and senior Madison Vinich walked into silence.
She was the first one to arrive for volleyball practice. She corralled her backpack and water bottle into a pile and proceeded to grab whatever she could to re-install the volleyball nets. Her teammates quickly arrived and, together, they prepared their practice space before head coach Jeff Barkell arrived.
Vinich has been a four-year standout for the Trojans and this weekend she has one last opportunity to win a state championship. Along with her senior classmates and a plethora of talent surrounding them, the Trojans are convinced this year may be their best shot at the title that has eluded the program for seven years.
Kelly Walsh’s current successes were set in motion when Vinich still lived in Lander. She grew up around volleyball, with her mother coaching the traveling team her sister played on.
Her love for the sport didn’t change when she was 6 years old and the family moved to Casper. She quickly found athletic friends in town that also wanted to play sports.
They played traveling basketball as soon as they could. The opportunity to introduce volleyball into the mix arose two years later.
“When we started out at basketball we were awful,” Vinich recalled. “Volleyball, we were pretty good from the start.”
The team was at its best when the girls were in junior high school. This brought the decision of which high school to attend — Kelly Walsh or Natrona County.
Barkell, the longtime Trojan volleyball coach, made sure he and his staff were hands-off during the froup’s decision-making process. They hosted open gyms with no idea who would attend.
“Whoever showed up, we treated them like they were Trojans,” Barkell said.
Vinich’s brother went to Natrona County, but it was up in the air as to where she would go. Her best friend was (and still is) teammate Hallie Jimenez. Jimenez’s father applied for the head basketball coaching position at Kelly Walsh, which meant both spent a little more time in the KW gyms.
While Jimenez’s father didn’t get the coaching job, Vinich and Jimenez, along with their year-older friend Jamia Johnson had reached a decision.
“That’s when we decided that we liked the atmosphere of Kelly Walsh,” Vinich said. “So we were just going to go there and all of our friends were too.”
Vinich played in all 91 games her freshman year and led the team in kills with 281. The Trojans made it all the way to the state championship match but fell in five sets to Cheyenne East, which was just beginning a run of state titles.
She held her own against the best that Wyoming has to offer even while adjusting to the increased speeds of high school volleyball. That’s where she found guidance in the older players.
“I was really shy and working with those girls, they really brought me in with them and I felt more comfortable,” Vinich said. “Getting me out of my shell was the big thing.”
The Trojans returned to the state tournament the next year, having won their second straight conference and regional championships. Vinich was joined by Jimenez, fellow sophomores Maddison Dedic, Jaliegah Davis and Shaelea Spargur, as well as freshman Hadley Lloyd.
But Jimenez suffered a devastating knee injury and Kelly Walsh fell in a five-set upset to Laramie in the quarterfinals. The young Trojans were forced to wait another year.
Vinich, Jimenez, Dedic and Lloyd then reloaded with Jill Phipps and standout freshman Danilynn Schell. The younger Trojans filled in immediately and the team again won conference and regional titles. They won the first two matches in the state tournament in a combined seven sets, setting the stage for a rematch with Cheyenne East in the championship.
Unfortunately for the Trojans, the T-Birds also had reloaded and East completed its three-peat with a clean sweep. Another 90-game season ended one win short again.
Now in her final season as a Trojan, Vinich discussed what she has learned over the previous three seasons.
“The big thing is just leadership and being able to talk to the girls and let them know it’s OK and they should keep trying,” she said. “That’s what the senior girls my freshman year taught me.”
But Vinich is just one piece to the Trojans’ undefeated conference season and a 31-4 record entering Thursday’s quarterfinal match against Gillette.
She has been flanked by her classmates: Jimenez (knee brace nowhere to be found), Dedic, Phipps, Davis and Spargur. Then there’s been the varsity’s lone junior Hadley Lloyd. Add in two of the state’s most talented sophomores in Schell and Corin Carruth, and its no surprise the Trojans enter state as one of the favorites.
Kelly Walsh’s strength has been in its depth. But its heart has been with its senior class.
“It’s just hard to say there’s any one thing, but the stable thing has been this group of seniors,” Barkell said. “That leadership and that togetherness, things of that nature, it’s a special thing to be around because it’s not about barking orders.”
That group now faces its final state tournament together.
Vinich has been center stage for all of them. This weekend, however, she gets to share it with her classmates and fellow leaders.
“All of us from our traveling team are still playing together and we’re on the varsity team as seniors,” Vinich said. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time. And being seniors, being together on the same volleyball team and playing with them means a lot.”
Vinich currently is leaning toward playing volleyball in college. She’s been in contact with a few NCAA Division II schools in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference, but has not made a decision. Regardless of where she goes, there’s a strong possibility she’ll be going without those she grew up playing volleyball with.
That means this state tournament is all the more special and urgent for this group of seniors. Their head coach can’t help but recognize what kind of an ending a state championship would be for them.
“It would be fitting,” Barkell said. “They’ve done and accomplished a lot of things. They’ve won conference championships, regional championships, they were in the state finals, Madi has been part of two state runner-up titles, if you want to call that a title.
“She has been a part of that, the other kids have been around it too. ... It would just be very heartwarming to see them accomplish all of their goals.”