PAPILLION, Neb. (BVM) — One wouldn’t guess that Papillion-La Vista South was the Class A volleyball state champion last year just by looking at the team’s rather pedestrian 24-17 record.
But that record speaks to how difficult it can be to win in Nebraska.
“Everyone that we play is good,” Papio South head coach Katie Tarman said. “It’s a toss-up in the beginning of the season. It’s a toss-up in the middle of the season, as we showed.”
The Titans were only a .500 team a little more than midway through their season before hitting their stride late and making a run to their first state title since 2012 when they completed a Class A championship three-peat. Their road to a repeat this season won’t be any easier even though they’re considered to have one of the best teams in the country.
Papio South is ranked No. 9 in the AVCA/USA TODAY Super 25 national high school volleyball rankings, one of three Nebraska schools to make the list. Defending Class B champ Omaha Skutt is ranked No. 1 overall and Pius X Catholic (Lincoln, Neb.) is No. 25. But those three nationally-ranked squads are just a small sample of a larger number of high-quality teams that will compete in the state this season.
Nebraska has become known as one of the country’s top producers of volleyball talent, and it’s no coincidence that the University of Nebraska Cornhuskers have more wins than any other college volleyball program and five national titles.
“These kids play for really competitive club teams and they all play together,” Tarman said. “I just think that the people who truly were raised in the sport have come full circle and are now giving that back to the community and there are more and more clubs. You have really good coaches out there in a lot of different clubs and that is just creating this love of the sport, this gigantic sport in Nebraska. It produces a lot of talent.”
Papio South has no shortage of that talent this season despite graduating Sophie Hendrix, who led the Titans in kills (358) and digs (512) last year. Leading a group of nine skilled returners is 6-foot junior hitter Ava Legrand, a Kansas State commit who led the team in blocks (119) and was second in kills (300) and assists (485).
Unlike last fall when the Titans had to battle through stretches of ups and downs before finally putting it all together, they’ll be a team on everyone’s radar from the get-go this season.
“We have a state title and everyone right out of the gates will want to beat us right away,” Legrand said. “But I think we just have to remember that we were kind of that team that was overlooked, so we can’t do that for any other team. We have to do our best.”
And they’ll have to do it under much different circumstances than a year ago. Many states have pushed fall sports back to the spring semester due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and even Omaha Public Schools have moved to 100% remote learning for the fall, which means fall sports are off the table for them.
”We feel very, very fortunate to be playing,” Tarman said. “These kids have risen to the occasion on anything we’ve put in place to keep them safe. … They’re willing to do whatever we ask them to do so that they can keep playing and I think that’s a tribute to who they are as a people and the type of athletes we have in our program.”
While the Nebraska School Activities Association won’t require volleyball teams to wear masks during competition this season, Papio South has decided to take that extra precautionary measure.
“They’ve trained in them and learned how to play in them,” Tarman said. “I know a lot of teams are not, but it’s just what we’re choosing to do to keep us safe and keep us from having to quarantine multiple kids.”
As the Titans know, winning volleyball matches in Nebraska is hard enough as it is without the concerns that come with the pandemic, and they don’t want anything else to get in the way of some big goals they have set for themselves this fall.
“They definitely have the goal of back-to-back — no doubt about that,” Tarman said. “But it’s a new year with new kids. We’re not going into this feeling like there’s a monkey on our back. … They’re a new team and whatever happened in the past is the past and they have to prove themselves today. They aren’t the team of the past, they’re the team of today.”