Posted On: 10/7/16 11:28 PM

Five weeks ago yesterday was the first day of the 2016 high school volleyball season, and the state tournament ends five weeks from tomorrow, so welcome to the official half-way point of the year.

So, let’s just throw out a bunch of random thoughts from the first five weeks and give out some fictitious statewide mid-season awards and some in each class.

Disclaimer – if your team doesn’t put stats on MaxPreps, it’s really hard to recognize players for their efforts and performances. Just putting that out there.

First, though, let’s talk about what makes Nebraska’s top teams better than the rest. Thus far – and a lot can still happen – Skutt Catholic, Omaha Marian and Papillion-LaVista have established themselves as the top three teams in the state. It’s those three and then everyone else. Skutt is undefeated, Marian’s only loss is to Skutt and Papillion-LaVista has lost twice (once to Skutt and once to Marian).

For every person you talk to, there’s a different theory about why those three are more successful than the rest of the teams so far this year. But, if you really break it down to the lowest common denominator, it’s this: Those three teams simply don’t beat themselves.

As great as the high school volleyball is in Nebraska, success still lies in the ability to avoid unforced errors. Teams that have success are the ones that keep the ball in play, serve well and pass well. The proof is in the pudding, which in this case is statistics.

Among the top 10 teams in the state that put stats on MaxPreps (we won’t name those schools that don’t but you know who you are), Skutt, Marian and Papio all have huge advantages when it comes to taking care of the ball.

As a team, Skutt is hitting a state-best .441. Hitting percentage is calculated by taking kills minus errors divided by number of attacks. To over simplify in baseball terms, it’s a volleyball team or player’s batting average. So, on average, Skutt gets a kill 44.1% of the time it attacks. That’s outstanding.

Who ranks second? Glad you asked. It’s Marian at .345. Third? That’s Papio at .302. The next best performances are Grand Island Northwest at .256 and Millard North at .254.

Who’s the best of the best when it comes to serving? That would be Grand Island Northwest, which serves at 95.1% and has a +49 ratio on aces/errors. Right behind the Vikings is Skutt at 94.2% with a +40 ace/error ratio. Who has the best ace/error ratio? Marian is tops there with a +51 ratio. Papillion serves at 92.9% but surprising actually has a -1 ace/error ratio.

Not to pick on the following two schools, but they just happen to be the only teams in the bottom half of the Class A top 10 that puts stats on MaxPreps. If you want to look at why there is a gap between the elite teams and the rest of the pack, look at what Skutt, Marian and Papio do compared to Lincoln Southwest and Lincoln Northeast.

Southwest hits at .214 – nearly half of the efficiency of Skutt – while Northeast is hitting .116. Meanwhile, at the service line, Southwest converts on 85.9% with a -50 ace/error ratio and Northeast is at 90.8% with a -12 ratio.

In an average match, if Marian were to play Southwest, the Crusaders are going to score 2.5 points simply based on its ace/error ratio while Southwest is going to give Marian an addition 2.5 points in the same manner. Beating Marian is tough enough, let alone when you start in a five-point hole.

Breakout Player of the Year in Nebraska: Makenna Niemoth, Doniphan-Trumbull.

Quick – name the player leading Nebraska in kills after the first five weeks.

Be honest, did you answer Niemoth? Her 293 kills are already a career high for the 5-foot-8 OH and a huge reason why the Cardinals are having one of the best seasons in school history at 18-3 thus far. While surprising, her performance is far from a fluke. She is a great leaper and smart attacker and is hitting .277. She doesn’t have Division I ability, but she is going to make some small-college coach very, very happy the next four years.

Honorable Mention: Makenna Kirk, OH, Lincoln Northeast (leads Class A in kills), Maggie Sempeck, libero, Millard West.

All-Freshman Team in Nebraska:

Setter – Izzy Lukens, Millard North

Setter – Brooklyn Schram, Bellevue West

Hitter – McKenna Ruch, Millard North

Hitter – Megan Skovsende, Skutt Catholic

Hitter – Marriah Buss, Beatrice

Hitter – Jensen Rowse, Minden

Hitter – Tori Thomas, Hastings St. Cecilia

Hitter – Chloe Paschal, Papillion-LaVista

Libero – Sam Steele, Millard South

Libero – Kayla Hansen, Millard West

Under-the-Radar Seniors Who Would Make Really Nice 2-Year or NAIA College Players:

Heather Bills, 6-foot, RS, Elkhorn

Ashley Carson, 5-foot-6, Setter, Ord

Katie Chalupa, 5-foot-5, Libero, Omaha Westside

Taylor Colman, 5-foot-8, Setter, O’Neill St. Mary’s

Jennifer Jimenez, 5-foot-11, MH/RS, Omaha South

Carsyn Poppe, 5-foot-9, Setter, Doniphan-Trumbull

Addison Schramm, 5-foot-9, Setter, Omaha Northwest

Liz Selting, 5-foot-10, OH, Elgin/Pope John

Kaylee Taylor, 5-foot-6, Libero, Grand Island

Jacee Weber, 5-foot-10, OH, Dorchester

Class A Thoughts & Awards

In each of the past three seasons, Omaha Marian has started the year as the preseason #1 and then went on to win the state title. The Crusaders started this year at #1 again and are still there. The interesting thing is that Marian has never gone wire-to-wire at #1, something that it has done so far this year.

After starting out #1 in 2013, Marian gave way to Millard West as the Wildcats dominated the regular season. Marian then knocked off Millard West in an epic five-set match for the Class A title. In 2014, Marian started #1 and then Papillion-LaVista knocked them out and held the top spot until the very end, when the Crusaders ruined a perfect Monarch season in the Class A final. Last year, Papillion-LaVista South beat Marian twice early in the season, but the Crusaders bounced back and knocked the Titans out in the Class A semifinals before beating North Platte for its third-straight Class A title.

I’m not sure what that means, but we haven’t had a wire-to-wire Class A #1 in the PRH (Post Rolfzens, Hunter) era.

Most Improved Team: Lincoln Southwest. There really isn’t a nice way to say this, but Lincoln Southwest was absolutely brutal this summer. I mean, they were terrible. Then the Silver Hawks came out and got swept by Lincoln North Star on opening night and dropped a match to a questionable-at-the-time Lincoln Pius X less than a week later. A sweep over Bellevue West and a five-set win over a struggling Lincoln East team got Southwest to 2-3 before the LPS Invite, which I figured would be a painful weekend for the Silver Hawks. But then came gritty three-set wins over Pius X, Elkhorn South and Papio South to go with tough three-set losses to Marian and North Star. Now at 11-8 and coming off a come-from-behind 3-2 win over Lincoln Southeast, Southwest is a legitimate state-tournament team and playing very, very well. The difference between now and July is night and day.

Coach of the year: Katie Wenz, Lincoln Pius X. Last year, Wenz’s first at Pius X, was a disaster. Jake Moore had retired after guiding the Thunderbolts to 20-straight state tournaments and left huge shoes to fill. Wenz came in from Arapahoe and took a job which – frankly – a lot of people were afraid to take. With Pius X moving to Class A, Wenz go the team off to a respectable 8-12 start before the wheels came off in October as the team finished 13-24 and lost in the first round of district play. Instead of looking for pity, Wenz went to work. When you talk to people about Wenz, they call her a sponge, always picking the brains of other coaches and working hard to improve as a coach. It’s obviously paid off. Pius X enters the second half of this season at 19-9 and with the fifth-highest wildcard point total in Class A. Yes, she has Air Force recruit Kathleen Medill in the middle, but for the most part her team is a bunch of scrappers with great court coverage that are (pause for effect) well coached. Honorable mention: Mark Novotny, Lincoln Southwest, Craig Songster, Lincoln North Star, Bill Root, Grand Island.

Player of the year: IDK. Seriously, I have no idea at this point. There is no clear-cut person at this point that has been THE dominant player in Class A. So, let’s talk about the candidates. Steph Gaston is certainly in the mix. The 6-foot-5 Creighton recruit is averaging a career-best 4.0 kills per set and her .367 hitting percentage is also a career-best. Her block is effective but maybe not as dominant as you would like and she doesn’t play back row. At Papio South, North Dakota recruit Taliyah Flores does it all. The junior’s 220 kills is third in Class A and just 10 behind Gaston, but her .235 hitting percentage is a little low. Flores is a stud defensively, though, at 5.2 digs per set and even with a drunken-sailor-like serve approach (if you’ve seen her serve, you understand) she serves at 97.8% with a 31-7 ace/error ratio.

Elise Baumann might have been a long-shot at the start of the season to be Class A POY, but here she is right in the thick of it as the senior leader for Millard North. The Hastings College recruit does it all for the Mustangs and is the most consistently strong performer for them. Her 180 kills is among the Class A leaders, but again, the hitting percentage isn’t as high as you would like at .212. Her service ace percentage of 10.4% is among the best in the state and she hits 95.2 of her serves with that high of an ace percentage. She also gets 3.0 digs and 4.6 serve receptions per set. But, if you twist my arm to name a mid-season POY, it would have to be the best player on the best team – Omaha Marian sophomore Emily Bressman. She gives you the high kill total (197) along with the high hitting percentage you like to see (.356) and she is also second on the team with 37 aces (37/14 ratio) and also leads the Crusaders in digs with 170. I’m not sure who the last Marian player would have been to lead the team in kills and digs, but it would have to be many years in the past, which speaks to just how valuable she is to the best team in Class A.

Class B Thoughts & Awards

I don’t mean to rain on the parade, but let’s hold off a bit on handing the state title to Skutt Catholic. Have they been the most dominant team in the state this year? Yes. Have they rolled pretty much everyone in their way? Yup, they’ve done that as well. The eyes say the Skyhawks are on their way to another state title. My heart says it. But my brain has learned to ignore that, and here is why: The most dominant teams don’t always win the state title.

In the 44 years we’ve been playing high school volleyball in Nebraska, 85 teams have gone undefeated and reached the state championship match in their respective class. How have they done? They are a combined 48-37, which means being undefeated and reaching the state final gives you a 56.4% chance of winning it all. Not as impressive as you would think. In Class B alone, 16 teams have been undefeated when playing for the title. Eight times they’ve won and eight times they’ve lost.

Of course, all of that only comes into play if Skutt reaches the Class B finals undefeated. With some matches coming up against some of the best teams fro, Kansas, the Skyhawks will have their work cut out for them to remain undefeated. Then, there is always that possibility that Skutt doesn’t reach the state finals.

The last time a Class B team was this clear-cut ahead of everyone else was 2013. That year Grand Island Northwest was rolling everyone. The Vikings dropped just four sets all year, beating pretty much all the top teams in Class B into submission. Northwest rolled into state 36-0 and swept Beatrice in the first round before, shockingly, falling in four sets to Norris in the semifinals. What happened? Well, Norris was the only Class B contender Northwest didn’t play all year and the Titans had a big, athletic block that frustrated the Vikings. Meanwhile, Norris continued playing aggressively with nothing to lose and dominated the first two sets en route to a 25-19, 25-15, 18-25, 25-21 victory.

Stay with me here, because I love the symmetry of this. Skutt’s dominance this year is very similar the what Northwest did in 2013. And, when you look at Skutt’s schedule, they play pretty much everyone. The Skyhawks have beaten the best of the best in Class A. They’ve swept Class B #2 Gretna, and will play #4 Omaha Duchesne and #5 Aurora later this month. Who is the only top-tier squad Skutt has not and will not face this year? Yup – it’s Grand Island Northwest. What’s Northwest’s strength this year? You got it – a big, athletic block and great defense.

Most improved team: Norris. It was a rough first couple weeks of the season for the Titans as they lost to Bennington to open the year, got swept by Waverly twice and fell in five to Elkhorn to start the year 5-4. Things have turned around as of late, though, as Norris has beaten Elkhorn South and a tough Class A foe in Bellevue West. This week the Titans got redemption against Waverly with a win in five sets and then took a set off Gretna – something only three teams had done prior.

Coach of the year: Andrew Wehrli, Omaha Duchesne. Late this summer Wehrli told me he expected to struggle at the start of the year and then be a top-4 team in Class B by the end of the year. Well, guess what? Duchesne got swept three times to start the year 2-3 at the Beatrice Invite then lost to Omaha Concordia and struggled to put away Bennington at the Seward Invite but got its record up to 7-4. Duchesne is 12-1 since the Seward Invite with its only loss coming to Kearney Catholic 2-1. In that stretch, Duchesne absolutely rolled Elkhorn South 2-0 and also took a 2-1 win over Class A #6 Lincoln Pius X. Duchesne is currently #4 in Class B. The scary thing is that aside from Alissa Milota, who is fifth on the team in kills, Duchesne rolls with all underclassmen. Wehrli is building a sustained power at Duchesne, a program that made only its second-ever trip to state last year.

Player of the year: Brooke Heyne & Allison Schomers, Omaha Skutt. Not really sure how you pick one over the other and since I don’t have to, I won’t.

Class C-1 Thoughts & Awards

I honestly don’t think I’ve ever seen in my life a more loaded and balanced class than what Class C-1 is this year. In my opinion, there are 3-4 teams in C-1 that could either win the whole thing or not even make it to the state tournament. From the sub-state round to the state finals, Class C-1 will be a complete blood bath.

Take Malcolm for example. The Clippers are the only undefeated team in the class at 20-0, have arguable the best player in the state in junior OH Jaela Zimmerman and have a future Husker walk-on in Hayley Densberger. Yet, based on the NSAA wild card point totals today, Malcolm would find itself playing at a very, very good Omaha Concordia in the sub-state round. Ord has the ability to win it all, but at this point would play sub-state at Ogallala. Chadron has beaten Kearney Catholic and Grand Island Northwest this year, but would have its hands full with 17-4 Arlington in a sub-state match.

The great thing also is that we have a sub-state round in Class C this year. Yes, some teams are going to have very, very difficult matches in that round. But, that’s the point of sub-state – letting teams earn their way to state on the court, not through a mathematical formula. Am I right St. Paul?

Most improved team: Fort Calhoun. At 15-6 this year, Fort Calhoun is having its best season in recent history. The past three years combined the Pioneers have gone 29-54. Sure, having one of the best players in the state in Omaha recruit Rylee Marshall helps, but Fort Calhoun has an outside shot at getting to state for the first time since 1989. Getting out of a subdistrict that includes Omaha Concordia won’t be easy, but Fort Calhoun also currently ranks 15th in wild card points, so a strong finish to the year could help get them to the sub-state round.

Most underrated player: Alyssa Frederick, Falls City. Frederick is one kill shy of being the only player in the state with 300 or more kills and digs. At just 5-foot-9, the senior has 299 kills with a .267 hitting percentage and also has 307 digs. In a 3-1 loss to a good Elmwood-Murdock team earlier this year Frederick went off for 34 kills and 19 digs.

Player of the year: Anna Squiers, Kearney Catholic. There are literally so many great players in C-1 and many viable options, but when you’re talking about the player who does the most for their team, it’s Squiers. The senior leads the team in kills with 234, is third in ace serves with 25, first in blocks with 64 ½, third in digs with 184 and is second in set assists with 225.

Class C-2 Thoughts & Awards

A year ago both Diller-Odell and Howells-Dodge were in D-1 and now they sit with a combined record of 37-3 and have the top two NSAA wild card point totals in the class – by a wide margin. The Griffins and Jaguars aren’t exactly being polite guests in 2016.

Diller-Odell looks like they have their feet under themselves again after a hiccup last week that saw the Griffins get swept by both Johnson-Brock and Meridian. Losses like that can sometimes be a good thing at this point in the season to get everyone refocused. Howells-Dodge hasn’t played quite the schedule Diller-Odell has, but the Jaguars’ 3-1 win over Stanton shows they have state-title potential.

Don’t sleep on Stanton – which is dealing with injury issues right now – nor Crofton, one of the most athletic teams you’ll see. Doniphan-Trumbull, though, might be the real team to watch once postseason starts. The Cardinals might have the most overall talent in C-2.

2016’s potential St. Cecilia: Archbishop Bergan. Last season Hastings St. Cecilia went into postseason play at 19-11 and something of an afterthought in Class C-2. All the Hawkettes did then was steamroll through six straight opponents to win the state title. Who is a team that could repeat it this year? Keep an eye on Archbishop Bergan. Just like Hastings St. Cecilia, the Knights are a smaller school playing in the loaded Centennial Conference, so you can’t pay much attention to their record. Bergan has a favorable subdistrict and enough weapons to do some damage in the postseason.

Most underrated player: Heidi Roesener, Cross County. Cross County is having a nice season at 14-9 and Roesener is a big reason why. The 5-foot-9 senior OH is second in C-1 with 271 kills and she’s been a consistent force all year. Even though the team has only played one match of more than three sets, Roesener has had double-digit kill totals in 19 of the 25 matches.

Player of the year: Makenna Niemoth, Doniphan-Trumbull. At the start of the year I would have said the Class C-2 POY would be a three-horse race between Diller-Odell’s Madison Jurgens, St. Cecilia’s Lucy Skoch and Stanton’s Jesse Brandl. A hip issue has hindered Brandl and Jurgens and Skoch are certainly having great years, but Niemoth has been on fire the first half of the year. She leads the state with 310 kills while hitting .275 and has been the leader of a Doniphan-Trumbull team that is a surprise C-2 title contender. In a 3-2 win over a good Adams Central team earlier this year Niemoth had 25 kills and 30 digs.

Class D-1 Thoughts & Awards

It’s probably overdue that Elgin/Pope John gets some love for the season it is having. Johnson-Brock is the defending state champ and is probably the odds-on favorite to win it again this year, but the Wolfpack has positioned itself as a serious threat.

Elgin/Pope John is undefeated at 21-0 with a favorable schedule remaining so it should be a safe bet to make it to state for the first time as a co-op program, even if it gets upset is district play – where Lutheran High Northeast is looming. But with recent impressive wins – including sweeps of O’Neill St. Mary’s, Creighton and Howells-Dodge – Elgin/Pope John has proven it’s legit.

Team to watch out for: Cedar Bluffs. I’m not convinced Cedar Bluffs is good enough to make a deep run in the postseason, but the stars align for them pretty well. D-1 isn’t the deepest class in the state and I think it’s just a three-horse race between Johnson-Brock, Elgin/Pope John and Meridian. Cedar Bluffs is sitting at 11-3 right now with a pretty uneventful schedule left in front of it and no major obstacle in its subdistrct/district. Depending on how the brackets shape up, Cedar Bluffs could find itself playing on the final day of the season.

Most underrated player: Brooke Baugh, Friend. At 12-7, Friend isn’t having the season it had probably hoped for initially, but Baugh has been as good as it gets during the first half of her senior year. The 6-footer is hitting at a .400 clip with 208 kills to go with 51 blocks and over 100 digs. She’s going to make a great college player for someone locally.

Player of the year: Fallon Stutheit, Johnson-Brock. You have to give strong consideration to Alma’s Jadyn Heckenlively, Fullerton’s Halle Plumbtree, Elgin/Pope John’s Liz Selting and Guardian Angel’s Maddie Knobbe, but the 6-foot-1 sophomore Stutheit is just too dominant to ignore. Stutheit’s 5.6 kills per set is best in the state and her total of 295 kills is among the state leaders. She’s also efficient, hitting .418.

Class D-2 Thoughts & Awards

It really, really feels like we are simply heading down the path to a Hampton vs. Exeter-Milligan match for the D-2 title, providing they don’t wind up on the same side of the bracket at state. With all due respect to the other teams in D-2, these have been the best two teams all year and neither is showing signs of slowing down. Hampton still hasn’t lost a set all year and – excluding the Crossroads Conference Tournament – faces just two teams with a winning record the rest of the way.

The Crossroads Conference tournament could feature an Exeter-Milligan vs. Hampton match and one of those teams could use that as a springboard into the postseason.

Can anyone spoil Hampton/Exeter-Milligan party in D-2: Wynot. While Wynot doesn’t have the most daunting of schedules, it has handled all the top teams it has faced. Its lone loss came 2-1 against Class C-2 power Crofton, otherwise Wynot has rolled all 13 of its other opponents, including sweeps of both Ponca and Winside, which have a combined record of 32-5.

Most underrated player: Tara Callahan, Brady. I feel like I’ve said this a million times on this website and on Twitter, but if Callahan were at a Class A school she would be a household name and a sure-fire Division I player. The 6-foot-1 senior middle/setter is headed to Concordia and is basically unstoppable in Class D-2. She has 202 kills, 103 digs, 136 assists and hits .376 with 77 ½ blocks.

Player of the year: Madison VanHousen, Hampton. Remember, Hampton has swept all its opponents this year, so the 5-foot-11 senior Doane recruit has only played in 45 sets this year. In that time she has 171 kills with a mind-boggling .532 hitting percentage to go with 49 ace serves, 37 blocks and 78 digs.