BY JIM MISUNAS
There were no tears, just hugs and celebratory smiles when the Great Bend Panthers secured a 5A state volleyball berth with a hard-fought 25-19, 25-22 substate victory Saturday over pesky Salina Central.
The Mustangs outlasted rival Salina South 25-20, 20-25, 25-17 to earn a championship berth.
Great Bend coach Shelly Duvall earned her first state berth after losing in the substate championship three times. The Panthers missed two stretches at the start of the season and midseason with virus-related quarantines.
“Getting a state berth is awesome,” Duvall said. “These girls been through a lot with our quarantines and missing practice.”
As usual, the Panthers relied on defensive wizard Sydney Unruh and hitting from everyone — led by sparkplugs Rachel Panzer and Brynn Boxberger. Setters Alayna Irwin and Zoe Jerke were brilliant. The hitters took turns with hot-hitting Valarie Luna joined by MaKenzie Premer, Lexi Deines and Candice Smith. Macy Nachtigal also contributed.
Salina Central’s super sophomore Mykayla Cunningham was a hitting sensation along with Tyler Vidricksen. Boxberger and Panzer delivered winners in the opening set for a 25-19 victory. But Cunningham and Capri Myers turned a 7-1 deficit into a 15-13 advantage. Luna and Premer hit winners for a 22-19 lead. Setters Jerke and Irwin hit winners to set up the Panthers for Brynn Boxberger's match point off a Mustang block.
“Central played a heck of a match,” Duvall said. “Cunningham was really good for Central.”
Duvall believed the Panthers’ balance was the difference.
“Everybody was doing their job today, like a well-oiled machine,” she said. “We needed the whole team and coaches to make this work today. Our players off the bench were ready to play. We hit a ball out a time or two, but we never worried whether we’d get to the ball. Sydney Unruh is amazing defensively. It’s fun to see her play. Everything is fast forward for her.”
Unruh played her typical heroic style, saving ball-after-ball to start a return to setters Irwin and Jerke.
“When I make a save, it gets me fired up and gets my adrenaline going,” she said. “I think of my teammates and how they depend on me. We played our best today.”
Unruh said the victory was well deserved for Duvall.
“It means a lot. Coach Duvall really communicates with us really well,” she said.
Panzer said it was gratifying to play well after a runner-up finish to 10-time WAC champion Garden City last week.
“It feels super good to win this after coming so close last year,” Panzer said. “We rallied together as a team today. WAC helped boost our confidence. Our fans really help us out. We hit it pretty good today.”
The Panthers’ balance was evident in a hard-fought 25-20, 25-19 victory over Hays High. Premer led the way with eight winners and Boxberger contributed seven winners. Panzer and Deines attacked the first set. Smith delivered four big winners in the decisive second set.
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."
The Panthers (20-10) travel to Maize South (28-6) for Tuesday’s best-of-five 5A state quarterfinal.
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.
Maize South 6-2 setter/hitter Laurel Jones has committed to Marquette University and Riley Kennedy has committed to Neosho County for softball and volleyball. Jones and ninth-grader Gracie Morrow are the hard-hitting standouts.
"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 as our team leader. Gracie Morrow is a freshman outside with lots of ability. She is still learning the game, but is a 6-rotation player."
Jones has overcome a turf toe injury, a stress fracture, constant shin splints and a torn disc in her back that sidelined her for eight months.
She averages 5.8 assist with 228 winners and 57 blocks.
“Laurel is like another coach out on the floor,” said Larson. “She’s so calm. She gets them focused and always knows what I want. It’s almost like a little ESP or telepathy going on. She really can do it all.”
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