Returning a strong group from last year’s state tournament-qualifying team, Elkhorn South entered the 2020 season as one of the favorites in Class A. Then, during Elkhorn South’s senior night win over Omaha Marian, the Storm suffered a big blow.
Senior outside hitter/defensive specialist Brilee Wieseler, an Omaha commit, went down with a torn ACL. Her senior season was cut short just three matches in.
“It was just tough emotionally for all of us,” said Rylee Gray, the only other senior on the roster. “You never want to see your teammate go through that, especially in her senior season. But she’s been here since day one, she’s our biggest cheerleader and we know we can count on her for anything too.”
Despite losing a key piece in Wieseler, the Storm continued to roll through any team that got in their way, opening the season with nine straight sweeps. Wieseler was a versatile player and her absence led to some lineup shuffling. Junior Kaitlin Thiebauth is playing at opposite hitter with junior Katie Galligan behind her at right back and sophomores Annie Millard and Maddie Henry are splitting time at the second outside hitter spot.
“Brilee’s injury was a tough one for us, but the culture that she built around her, that Rylee and Brilee, both our seniors, built around them I think really shows in the fact that our underclassmen feel confident and can step in and fill her role,” Elkhorn South coach Chelsea Potter said. “Brilee’s still here bringing all of her energy. She’s a great extra person to have on the bench and can add great information in timeouts and helps her teammates out a lot.”
The latest of those sweeps came on Thursday night as Elkhorn South hosted another 2019 state tournament qualifier in Papillion-La Vista, which survived a five-set thriller with Bellevue West last week.
Elkhorn South flexed its defensive muscles and got stronger and stronger as the night went on in a 25-18, 25-16, 25-13 win.
“I’m super proud of our girls,” Potter said. “They are playing every match with a grateful heart, grateful to play volleyball just because we know that at any point the season could be taken. I think that shows in our energy we bring out every match and we’re super excited to play. Papio is a tough opponent, so I’m proud of how we played tonight.”
Gray said the win felt really good.
“I think our defense definitely won us the game tonight,” Gray said. “We had a lot of blocks — that was probably the best blocking match we’ve had in a while. Then our offense was just consistent enough that our defense could carry us through.”
The Storm totaled 16 blocks, by far a season-high. Five different players recorded at least one block assist.
“That’s something we’ve been really working on to make sure that we have a solid block and we can still get our offensive-minded hitters in, so we’ve been really focusing in on that and I think our players, our blockers and Rylee are really buying into that,” Potter said.
Gray, a 6-foot-4 middle blocker committed to Nebraska, had a hand in most of those blocks, finishing with a career-high 12 of them including four solo stuffs (also a career high). She added 11 kills on .250 hitting for her third career double-double despite a rough start with just one kill in game one.
“In the first set, I was really struggling hitting,” Gray said. “They were digging me a lot. Madi and I couldn’t really connect, so I really started focusing on blocking and I think that helped me get into the rhythm of hitting the second and third set.”
With Gray struggling to terminate, junior outside hitter Kylie Weeks stepped up, recording six kills in the first set and eight more in the second. She finished with 14 kills on .333 hitting, 10 digs and two aces.
“That’s a couple of our best assets there is we have some high-powered offensive hitters that can play really well off of each other and they complement each other really well,” Potter said. “Kylie’s got great defensive skills, great ball-control skills, so she’s a good, well-rounded player.”
The two teams went back and forth early in the first set with Papillion-La Vista pulling ahead 12-11. The Storm took control with a 6-1 run and never looked back. Gray recorded her fourth block on set point to close it out.
Elkhorn South pulled ahead early in the second set as well at 6-4, but once again Elkhorn South put together a 6-1 run to turn the tables. After trading points for a bit, the Storm finished the set on an 11-3 run including three kills from Thiebauth.
Gray got going a bit more with four kills in the second set and carried that into the third where she absolutely dominated. Elkhorn South jumped out to an 8-0 lead with Gray recording three kills and four blocks on the first seven rallies.
Papio showed some fight with four straight points, but Elkhorn South put the Monarchs away with a 5-0 run and cruised from there. Gray notched six kills in the final frame.
“She’s a smart player and knew that some holes would open up,” Potter said. “We just had to find where people are setting up on defense with her and then she was able to adjust accordingly. Madi Woodin, our setter, can put her in some great positions and adjust when Rylee needs to to put her in a good spot to be aggressive.”
In addition to the 16 blocks, Elkhorn South also recorded 70 digs. Junior libero Estella Zatechka, the daughter of former Nebraska football player Jon Zatechka and a Missouri commit, led the way with 34 digs, a career-high for a match that lasted less than five sets. Junior setter Madi Woodin, a South Dakota pledge, did a bit of everything with 38 assists, seven digs, three kills and a block.
As for Gray, she said she’s just grateful to be playing.
“It feels amazing,” Gray said. “That’s all I wanted and even if we have to wear masks, we’ll do it.”
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.