The Elkhorn North Wolves closed out their inaugural regular season in victorious fashion on Tuesday night, sweeping Ralston 25-12, 25-16, 25-17. The brand new team made up of all underclassmen finished 13-16 under head coach Jenny Gragert.
The new school in Elkhorn, located near 180th and Maple, has been in the works for a while and officially opened this year. School administrators went after some highly-regarded coaches to build their athletics programs from the ground up, Gragert among them.
The long-time coach at Elkhorn High, who led the Antlers to eight straight state tournaments including two state titles, resigned in 2015 to focus on her family and raising her young children. When Elkhorn North came calling, she was hesitant at first.
“When this kind of started coming up a few years ago, I think I spent most of my time convincing myself I didn’t want to get back into coaching,” Gragert told Hail Varsity. “Then slowly over the last couple years, just starting a program from scratch was something that I think a lot of coaches aspire to do. It’s a challenge, but just to start the culture form the ground up, it’s been pretty cool to watch.”
Starting a program from scratch would be a difficult venture in any year, but 2020 has raised the difficulty level another couple of notches. The COVID-19 pandemic added even more obstacles for the Wolves to navigate as they attempted to get to know their teammates and their coaches. In fact, when they first started working the season was still very much in doubt.
“I look back and I didn’t think we were going to get a match in this year,” Gragert said. “It prevents things like team bonding, team dinners and that sort of stuff which is unfortunate because that’s kind of the way you build the culture. But we talked about every day walking into the gym, we have two hours in here to love it. This group is young, they’re kind of naive and they’re just so simple that they’ve glommed on to this two hours and I think of anyone they’ve had the mental toughness to handle it because they didn’t know any different.”
The Wolves definitely needed that mental toughness this season. They faced a brutal schedule for anyone in Class B, let along a brand new team. Ten of their first 16 matches came against Class A schools and they also played some of the best teams in Class B like Elkhorn, Waverly and Norris. Elkhorn North won just two of its first 11 matches.
“I think going into it I initially was thinking more long-term, knowing that in order to build a program we’re going to have to create a schedule that was going to be pretty competitive,” Gragert said. “I knew we were going to take our bumps year one regardless of the competition. Winning games we should and losing games that we should was a difference, and I think that we grew through those losses and we kind of tried to find ways to talk about how even though we got a loss we would grow or learn or improve certain areas. We said we would rather lose to teams like an Elkhorn South or a Millard North or a Millard West then roll through some big wins where we weren’t getting better.”
Elkhorn North’s varsity roster lists eight sophomores and four freshmen, three of whom are in the starting lineup. They had just one player with significant varsity experience heading into the season in sophomore opposite hitter Grace Heaney who spent her freshman year at Elkhorn. Heaney didn’t miss a set for the Antlers, finishing third on the team in kills with 2.1 kills per set.
At Elkhorn North, she’s emerged as a force, averaging 5.1 kills per set on .265 hitting.
“I think initially Grace tried to take on a lot and the pressure was tough just because she was the only returning player [with experience],” Gragert said. “But I think her main focus, and she will tell you it time and time again, is to make her teammates better. She doesn’t know that she’s stepping into a leadership role because she thinks she’s just empowering her teammates, but what she’s actually doing is leading the team which is a pretty cool thing for Grace.”
The Wolves have a freshman running the show in setter Reese Booth, the daughter of Creighton head volleyball coach Kirsten Bernthal Booth. Kirsten said their family lives in powerhouse Elkhorn South’s district, but Reese was looking for a smaller school and when they saw some of the hires Elkhorn North made, they were sold.
“Reese is a natural leader,” Gragert said. “She has a really high court IQ. She’s been around the game since she was so stinkin’ little, high-level volleyball since she was little. She just has a natural ability to make her teammates better. She communicates nonstop. She’s just a force to be reckoned with.”
Reese is averaging just over 9.0 assists and just under 3.0 digs per set and does a good job of feeding her stud hitter in Heaney while also spreading the ball around and getting everyone else involved.
Kirsten said she volunteered to run the team’s Twitter account during matches, though the service in the new gym is so bad that she hasn’t been able to provide updates at home.
“It’s been really fun, to be honest,” Kirsten said. “When I came in I didn’t know if she’d play varsity and the fact that she’s getting to play has been really fun. She loves her teammates. You go back to what you want your kids to get out of any activity in high school — you want them to learn discipline, work hard and have great relationships. This season has done that for Reese and I think for all the girls.”
Kirsten is no stranger to building a program from the ground up. When she accepted the head coaching job at Creighton back in 2002, the Bluejays were coming off a 3-23 season. She knows how difficult of a challenge Gragert and the Wolves are taking on.
“I think Coach Gragert has done a great job of explaining to the players the process and cheering when they’ve lost and played well and telling them when they’ve won and played poorly,” Kirsten said. “That was what we did for many years and actually we still do that. I’m still a very process-driven coach, but especially that first couple of years when we were below .500. We’d lose matches and we’d be in the locker room telling them how great they were.
“I think when you’re building something and you’re going to be outclassed sometimes when you play, you’ve got to make sure as a coach you’re making sure the players see the progress even though the scoreboard might not indicate it. I think Coach Gragert has done that amazingly well, her and her staff.”
The Wolves looked like a well-oiled machine against the Rams on Tuesday night, settling in after the first few rallies and controlling the action the rest of the night. Booth dished out 40 assists and chipped in four kills. Heaney led the Wolves with 20 kills on .395 hitting, four aces and three blocks. Sophomore middle blocker Kailey Hrbek, the team’s second-most experienced player (she played in 41 sets as a freshman at Elkhorn), finished with nine kills on .615 hitting. Sophomore outside hitter Hannah Nadgwick added seven kills on .263 hitting and two aces.
“I was actually really impressed with Ralston’s serve receive,” Gragert said. “We could not get them out of system very well, but our defense and our blocking did a nice job and then when we were in serve receive we capitalized on opportunities when we took care of the ball. Hannah and Grace did a nice job tonight.”
After toughing it out through a 2-9 start to the season, the Wolves have won six of their last seven. They’ve come a long way since their season-opening sweep at Elkhorn back on Aug. 27.
“It’s crazy,” Gragert said. “I can’t even think back that far, but I just know that the growth they’ve made emotionally and just the cohesiveness that they’ve developed and the understanding and accepting of roles I think has been huge for them. Just taking ownership of being part of a team has been pretty cool.”
Gragert said the winning has felt good as they’ve been gearing up for the postseason, where things won’t get any easier for the Wolves.
“Building some confidence heading into the postseason is good,” Gragert said. “Unfortunately our wildcard point status is not awesome, and I think it’s because we had such a tough schedule. But we’ve got districts — we’ve got Skutt, Elkhorn and Bennington, all three very, very successful teams right now so we’re kind of hoping some numbers fall our way to get a district final game, even if we don’t win districts. We’re just excited to have an opportunity to play again.”
Elkhorn North’s first regular season is officially in the books. Next up is its first postseason, and sub-district play in Class B begins on Monday.