ANDALE – After winning their home invitational, the Abilene Cowgirls knew going into sub-state that they wanted a chance at the undefeated Andale Indians with a trip to the Class 4A State Tournament on the line.
“We were looking forward to having the opportunity to compete against Andale,” Abilene head coach Jade Koch said. “But we knew we had to get by Clearwater first and we were going to have to play the best match of the season.”
Abilene watched from the stands as Chapman dispatched Winfield in a close match in the play-in contest before advancing to face the Lady Indians of Andale. In that contest, the number one ranked Andale team showed their power in a 25-13, 25-8 handling of the Lady Irish, then Andale advanced to play the winner of the third match of the day, the Cowgirls facing Clearwater.
Abilene got off to a slow start against Clearwater according to the coach with a lower than expected serve receive rating. According the stats, the Cowgirls were at 1.53 and coach Koch wants them to be above 2.0. They only had one block and 20 assists in the first set.
Things improved for Abilene in the second set as the serve receive rating was where Koch wanted it and their passing was better which allowed setters and hitters to make better connections. The 10th ranked Cowgirls won both sets against Clearwater 27-25 and 25-16.
Abilene secured the spot to face off with Andale in the championship.
“The girls were fearless and energetic in the first set,” Koch said. “The very first play of the game set the tone for the whole match.”
Kambree Bryson served for Abilene and Andale received the ball and the setter shot it out to their strongest outside hitter McKenzie Fairchild. Abilene’s Claira Dannefer got a huge stuff block to give the Cowgirls the first point of the set.
“That seemed to be Claira saying, “We are here for this and are going to give it all we’ve got,” the coach said of the early success against the Indians.
Abilene took an early 8-5 lead with kill shots from Chloe Rock and two kills from sophomore Renatta Hientz. Dannefer added another block and Andale forced some turnovers. The set then proceeded to go back and forth between squads with Abilene maintaining a slight lead. Up 16-13, the Cowgirls faulted on serve and then Andale went on a five-point run to take the lead.
At one-point seemingly late in the set the Cowgirls were down 17-21 but they dug in and after a kill shot from Heintz followed immediately by her serve for point and Bryson following with a kill, brought the Cowgirls within one point. The tension and suspense mounted in the gym as the set was late in the score and play was going back and forth with the score tied 24-24.
It was a brutal fight to the end of the set according to coach Koch. Andale prevailed in the end 31-29.
“The girls showed fearlessness and determination in the first set and I could not have been prouder,” she said.
The Cowgirls were devastated after the first set battle and lost the fire and determination for the possible upset.
“I still don’t quite know what happened with the fire the girls had between sets,” Koch said. “But it was all gone when we stepped onto the court in set two.
The Indians got off to an early lead and maintained an aggressive push throughout the rest of the match. Abilene fell 25-8 in the second set.
“I don’t know if the girls were exhausted from the first set, but the effort on defense was not great and we were playing back on our heels and making more detrimental errors and not getting into defensive position,” she said. “Andale played almost perfectly and we could not keep up. I told the girls I want them to think of that first set and how rewarding it was to fight with everything they had to almost take a set away from the number one team in the state. That first set was so thrilling and made the heartbreak of being done with our season even harder. We weren’t ready to be done and this team would have competed well at State.”
Abilene will have a lot of returning talent next year as they only lose two seniors to graduation in Rock and Tessa Bender. Rock has 198 career kills, 42 blocks, 181 digs and 17 aces. Bender is the top defensive specialist in Class 4A with 551 digs and averaging 6.4 digs per set according Koch. The second best specialist has 458 digs with 5.3 digs per set and played in one less match. Koch said Bender in the third overall in the State of Kansas with only 15 digs keeping her from second place. Career wise for the Cowgirls, Bender had 843 digs, 75 aces and 32 kills.
“These two are extra special to me,” Koch said. “They were the last eighth grade team before I moved to the high school. They are incredible athletes and are even more incredible young ladies. I am looking forward to seeing what their future holds for the remainder of their senior year and for what they will accomplish after graduation. They will be missed next year and there are some huge shoes to be filled.”