The Great Bend Panthers lost a heartbreaking 20-25, 25-22, 25-23 substate volleyball championship to the Goddard Lions last year.
The top-seeded Panthers have learned to be patient after working through two stoppages due to quarantine issues. The Panthers (18-10) open 5A substate at home against Hays High (13-22). Salina Central (14-18) plays Salina South (14-19) in the second semifinal. The substate winner plays the Maize South substate champion Tuesday.
"We've gone through a lot and learned the hard way," said Great Bend coach Shelly Duvall. "Our goal is to play our game and stay relaxed from point 1. The best part is our time off has made our team close. I was worried about our connection, but our experienced players have welcomed the underclassmen who have contributed."
Sparkplug Sydney Unruh (457 digs, 415 serves received), Rachel Panzer (252 digs, 317 serves received) and Lexi Deines (237 digs, 316 serves received) lead a solid defense. The versatile Panzer (228 winners) joins Brynn Boxberger (210 winners), Makenzie Premer (81 winners) and Valarie Luna (80 winners) lead the offense. Zoe Jerke (443 ballhandling assists) and Alayna Irwin (225 ballhandling assists) set up the big hitters.
"We feature a well-rounded team that knows their roles," Duvall said. "We know every position is filled by a quality player. We know our defensive player are going to do their job. It's nice to have a player like Rachel Panzer who can do anything.
Duvall said she has confidence in her team, and is positive the Panthers will respect the teams they play.
"I'm confident with how well we'll play," she said. "All four teams are fairly equal. We've showed we have ability to rally and will fight back from a deficit. We where we thought we'd end up."
The Panthers' secret weapon is a supportive home crowd keyed by superfans Daphne Beck, Starla Bieberle and Debbie Hosman, a trio of sisters. The Panthers enjoyed two home dates -- a match against Dodge City and the Western Athletic Conference tournament.
"The extra boost at home is good. We've got great fans and our volleyball family extends out to the city and county," Duvall said. "We've got good girls who work hard and people appreciate that. We'll definitely know if the sisters are there."
5A GREAT BEND—Great Bend 18-10 vs. Hays High 13-22, 1 p.m.; Salina Central 14-18 vs. Salina South 14-19, 2:30 p.m.
PANTHER STATS—1 Valarie Luna, 80 winners, 50 blocks, 24 digs, 13 serves received; 2 Alayna Irwin, 4 winners, 13 aces, 101 digs, 225 ballhandling assists, 2 serves received; 4 Makenzie Premer, 81 winners, 22 blocks, 14 digs, 12 serves received; 5 Lexi Deines, 33 winners, 18 aces, 237 digs, 7 ballhandling assists, 316 serves received; 8 Macy Nachtigal, 34 winners, 3 blocks, 30 digs, 59 serves received; 10 Brynn Boxberger, 210 winners, 20 aces, 24 blocks, 66 digs, 2 ballhandling assists, 7 serves received; 15 Sydney Unruh, 6 winners, 16 aces, 457 digs, 55 ballhandling assists, 415 serves received; 18 Rachel Panzer, 228 winners, 18 aces, 15 blocks, 252 digs, 5 ballhandling assists, 317 serves received; 22 Zoe Jerke, 13 winners, 30 aces, 1 block, 175 digs, 443 ballhandling assists, 1 serve received; 34 Candice Smith, 55 winners, 16 blocks, 17 digs, 5 serves received
Maize South volleyball coach Terri Larson qualified for the state tournament 11 times at Maize High and won state championships in 1998 and 1999. The Mavericks' fourth state trips occurred in 2010, 2018, 2019 and 2020.
Setter/hitter Laurel Jones has committed to Marquette University and Riley Kennedy has committed to Neosho Junior College for softball and volleyball.
"We play tenacious defense and run a 6-2 fast-tempo offense with several hitting options," Larson said. "Laurel has started since her freshman year as a setter/hitter. Whether she is setting or hitting, she runs the offense and is our team leader. Gracie is a freshman outside with lots of ability. She is still learning the game, but is a 6-rotation player for us already."