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A state volleyball semifinal, 11.8

Papillion-La Vista South celebrates beating Lincoln Pius X in the Class A semifinals Friday at Pinnacle Bank Arena.

"They're hot right now," Lincoln Pius X volleyball coach Katie Wenz said. 

She's right. Papillion-La Vista South, which swept the Thunderbolts in a Class A state high school volleyball tournament semifinal Friday at Pinnacle Bank Arena, is peaking at the right time.

The No. 10 Titans defeated top-rated Papillion-La Vista in the Metro Conference finals Oct. 23, then swept their way through districts, including a 3-0 triumph against No. 8 Millard South. Papio South has rode that momentum into Pinnacle Bank Arena, clinching two more sweeps over top-10 teams to earn a spot in Saturday's Class A final. 

Titans coach Katie Wright says the team honed its focus during the critical stages of the season. 

"We talk every single day about staying focused because every team here is really good," Wright said. "Our philosophy is that the most mentally tough team is going to be in the championship and I believe that to be the truth."

Plus, a raucous "Black Hole" student section didn't hurt. 

"They (the fans) were awesome," Wright said. "They are the best."

From student-managers to champion hopefuls: After losing in the first round of last year's Class D-1 state tournament, the Griffins of Diller-Odell had a chip on their shoulder this year, freshman outside hitter Karli Heidemann says.

There's more fueling the Griffins.

The seniors were freshmen when the team fell short in the Class C-2 state title match. Diller-Odell also lost in the 2015 state final.

Whether they were on the court, on the bench or in the stands, the current players remember those years well.

"They were student-managers the one year and the next year they were on the bench and a couple of them were on the court," Diller-Odell coach Kandice Jurgens said. "They have been pushing since they were student-managers five years ago. They're ready to see if they can finish off their career the way they'd like to."

Heidemann was a student-manager on last year's team.

"That chip on our shoulder from last year helped us tremendously," she said.

Brutal schedule pays off: Head coach Allan VanCura and Hastings St. Cecilia didn't think they would be in a position to win a state championship this year, but it's a welcome delight for the 42nd year head coach and his team. 

"I don't know if we felt that we could be in a state championship game with our schedule. We had half our teams in our conference here at the state tournament so I guess we weathered that schedule so to speak," said VanCura. 

Their schedule had seven different state tournament teams which included the Hawkettes beating Grand Island Central Catholic three times, who happens to be their opponent in the C-2 state championship at the Devaney Center. 

This also includes Lincoln Lutheran in C-2 and Archbishop Bergan in D-1 who both are appearing in their class state championship game on Saturday. 

So when VanCura's team pull into the Devaney Center on Saturday afternoon, he's confident his team can get the job done. 

"They're going to be excited for it, but we just want to continue doing what we've done for the last two days." 

Learning from the past: Wahoo beat Lincoln Lutheran in last year's Class C-1 state high school volleyball tournament final, a five-set instant classic. Wahoo also triumphed against Lutheran in the regular season Oct. 3.

Not this time. 

Lutheran coach Sue Ziegler said -- and senior standout hitter Marriah Buss echoed -- the importance of using the defeats to its advantage when it mattered most Friday, as Lutheran swept Wahoo 3-0 to stake a spot in the finals. 

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"You learn from your losses and from your mistakes," Ziegler said. "Part of that was due to letting up and getting comfortable... we made a lot of adjustments and picked up a lot of deficiencies this time."

Added Buss: "We studied a lot of film and had a clear game plan set out for this game. There was no doubt in our mind that we knew exactly what they were going to do."

Tough schedule: Archbishop Bergan didn't play a typical Class D-1 schedule heading into the postseason, and the degree of difficulty took its toll on the Knights' record. But it also made them a better team in the end.

They went 3-3 in the Class A Omaha Bryan Invitational in mid-September and later played six matches against Class C-1 and C-2 state tournament teams as a member of the Centennial Conference.

The 30-11 Knights faced just one Class D-1 opponent in the regular season — Johnson-Brock.

"We'd prefer not to play teams in our class (during the regular season)," Bergan outside hitter Allie DeGroff said. "When we play schools that are larger, it really prepares us for the end of the season. We won't see anything down here (at state) that we haven't seen already." 

A sweet delight: BDS has a traveling M&M costume everywhere the players have gone throughout the volleyball season.

Eagle senior Regan Alfs, who came up with the idea, was the first to wear it, showcasing it at a Runza after a tournament.

Each BDS player would pick the next player to wear the costume into the next establishment, continuing the tradition all season long

“The girls have had a lot of fun with it,” BDS coach Kari Jo Alfs said. “It's just been our theme.”

After games, the Eagles would hand out fun-sized bags of M&Ms with messages of support on the back.

“It's always fun to see the girls head to the stands and to talk with their family, talk with their friends and see them interact with the crowd. Obviously, that is what they are here for,” Alfs said.

It turned into a theme for BDS — S.H.O.W.U.S. It stands for "Serving hands, our way to ultimately shine."

“I challenged the girls this summer with our 'show us' theme,” Alfs said. “I wanted them to get on the court and serve balls, and we also serve in the community.

“We had a little team bonding one weekend up here in Lincoln and we went out and we served at a daycare center here in Lincoln, so we were not only serving on the floor, but serving for our communities as well.”

What the BDS team did not know was at the beginning of the year, Alfs put a heart in the costume.

“I said to the girls (before the state tournament), 'One thing you don't realize is you have all the little pieces and you have all the little hearts. The thing that is going to separate you from the other teams this weekend is you have to have the heart. You have to have the drive and you have to want to win it. If you want it more it has to come from the heart',” Alfs said.

Love for the liberos: Liberos go unnoticed. They do the dirty work and don’t necessarily fill up the stat sheet.

It takes the right attitude and mindset to be an effective libero.

Just ask Omaha Skutt coach Renee Saunders. Going into the state tournament a year ago, Saunders moved one of her top outside hitters, Megan Skovsende to libero. She felt it was the best chance for her team to win a fourth-straight title.

The move worked out and Skovsende shined in her role. This year, she’s back starring in her outside hitter role.

“She (Skovsende) embraced it (her role) with smiles,” Saunders said. “She’s a good hitter and has been hitting a long time. She’s always willing to do what’s best for the team.

Said All-State outside hitter Lindsay Krause about her unselfish teammate: “I love Megan. She didn’t look at it like a sacrifice. She just says ‘put me where you need me.’”

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