For the last two seasons, the Hastings volleyball team has watched its season end one win from the state tournament. The group of players were becoming frustratingly accustomed to watching the opposing team celebrate after punching a ticket to the state tournament, while they were forced to go back home and reflect on the season that just ended.
Not anymore. No longer is that the usual end for the Tigers’ season. This year’s squad finally bucked the trend and won a district final, qualifying it for the state tournament.
Ticket punched, thanks to a 22-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-20 win over Aurora in the Class B, District 8 championship Saturday in the Hastings High gymnasium.
“It’s about time, that’s all I can say,” said HHS head coach Dave Hepner. “These girls gave it their all all season long, and I couldn’t be any prouder of them. Great job to all of the girls.”
Hastings’ state berth is the first for the program since 2008 and just the fifth overall. The first three state appearances for HHS all came before rally scoring was even the standard in high school volleyball (2002, 1997, 1992).
Saturday’s victory was huge for the program, and the players recognize that. They know how big of an accomplishment it is to advance to the state tournament.
“For me personally, I’ve been going to state volleyball for as long as I can remember, and I’ve always thought, ‘This could be us,’ “ said Hastings’ Brooke Aspen. “Being a senior, it makes me just want to cry. My dreams are finally coming true. I think I can speak for everyone when I say that.”
Aspen is one of four seniors on the team, along with Aubree Cress, Haley Schram, and Emma Markle. Hepner said the senior class has been a “fantastic” group and set an example for the underclassmen.
“They’re fantastic. They helped shaped the culture. We’ve talked about it for the last so many years, about just loving the girl next to you and loving the game and making sure it doesn’t become about the me but that it’s about the we — thus, our theme ‘We over Me.’ They bought into it wholeheartedly,” he said. “They’re trying to lead by example, and I couldn’t ask for a better group. I hate to see them leave, but the good thing is they don’t have to for at least another week.”
Saturday’s win over Aurora came just four days after the Tigers fell to the Huskies in the subdistrict tournament. Aurora swept Hastings in the match, despite HHS winning the only regular season matchup. But the Tigers were happy to have a chance to get their vengeance on the Huskies.
“Since we beat (Aurora) once and then they beat us, it was really nice to come back and win again,” said Schram.
“We kind of knew that they weren’t going to lay down for us, but we also knew that we could beat them because we’ve done it before,” added Dacey Sealey. “We were just ready to play them and finish it. No record mattered, it was just a game.
“This time, we really, really prepared for them. Having played them in two games, we really knew everything they did and what we had to do to score. We were ready to bring it.”
HHS dropped the first set 25-22. Aurora led most of the way, but the Tigers went on a 6-1 run to pull within 20-19 and then tied things up at 22-all. But a service error and hitting error led to a kill from Paxtyn Dummer to clinch the frame for the Huskies.
But Hastings bounced back with a win set two, in another tightly contested frame. The two squads were tied at 19-apiece before the Tigers scored six of the final eight points. Schram tallied two kills during the stretch, while Cress had a kill and an ace. Aspen added a kill of her own — her fourth of the set — and Carley Norlen recorded an ace, as they took the frame 25-21.
HHS closed the third set on a 14-4 run and carried that momentum into the fourth set, where it won six of the first seven points. The Huskies came back to make it competitive, but another run from the Tigers ended the match. Sealey set up Schram for the final point of the match, sending the Tigers into a frenzy as they dogpiled on the gym floor.
For the first time since 2008, the @HastingsTigers are going to the state volleyball tournament!!Hastings beats Aurora 22-25, 25-21, 25-18, 25-19 in the district final. 🏐 🏆 #nebpreps pic.twitter.com/JAvMvoP5iF— TriblandSports (@TriblandSports) November 2, 2019
“Mostly, we were all just shocked and very proud,” Sealey said. “Nobody really thought we could do it, but we did. We just wanted to prove to ourselves and everybody else that we could do it.”
After the final point had been scored, Hepner couldn’t help but just watch his team celebrate its victory. He knows how hard those players have worked to get to this point, and he was proud to see that dedication rewarded.
“It was just a feeling that they’ve earned this. They’ve worked so hard and we conditioned the heck out of them, and it was a change from the past in terms of our dedication to the extra conditioning,” he said. “It was really cool watching them rush the court, tackle each other and love each other like they have. It was really cool.”
Schram and Cress both led the Tigers with 13 kills, while Aspen added 12. Sealey finished the match with 39 assists, five kills, and three ace serves.
Aspen said playing in front of the home crowd — something the Tigers have not been able to do in recent district finals — was a huge advantage.
“The atmosphere was crazy, for both towns. It was nuts. Our home crowd really knocked it out of the park,” she said.
Aspen believes the team’s expectations for the season started rising in September, during the Tigers’ nine match win streak. During that whole month, HHS went 12-3.
The HHS senior also said the team rallied around the noise from the doubters, those that thought Hastings had no chance of making it to Lincoln. Aspen said the team was happy to prove them wrong. She feels the Tigers can go to state with nothing to lose.
“No fear. We just have to play with all of our heart and give it everything we’ve got... Just, no fear,” she said.
The Tigers drew the No. 8 seed, leaving them a date with top-seeded Omaha Skutt (27-4) in the first round of the tournament.
Hastings is ready to get back to work and prepare to be at its best for the state tournament. Hepner said it’s going to be a busy week.
“I think it’s going to be hectic, to be honest, because now you’re on the map. I think this group has been on the map for a long time here, but you have to get to the big dance to have anybody pay attention to you,” the coach said. “I have a feeling we’re going to have a lot more attention drawn our way over the next few days, but I think they’re worthy of it. The bottom line is, they really like being around each other.”
Aurora (18-17).........25 21 18 19
Hastings (21-11)......22 25 25 25
Cassidy Knust 0-0-0, Emily Erickson 0-0-0, Lauren Feely 5-0-0, Paxtyn Dummer 7-1-0, Kassidy Hudson 6-0-2, Raina Cattau 2-1-0, Makayla Eberly 3-0-0, Jaylee Schuster 4-1-1, Gracee Pohlmann 11-0-1, Kasey Schuster 0-0-0, Rachel Hunter 0-0-0.
Assists — Cattau 17, K. Schuster 13, Knust 4.
Aburee Cress 13-1-0, Dacey Sealey 5-3-0, Haley Schram 13-0-0, Emma Markle 5-0-0, Hayden Stephenson 3-0-0, Carley Norlen 0-1-0, Brooke Aspen 12-0-0.
Assists —Sealey 39, Stephenson 4