This wasn’t going according to plan.
Iola High’s senior-laden roster entered the 2020 volleyball season with high hopes, but for whatever reason, things weren’t clicking.
The low point came during a brutal two-week stretch in mid-September.
There was a gut-wrenching three-set loss to Santa Fe Trail. A couple of disappointments against Burlington. A straight-set loss to Wellsville, in which the Fillies scored a combined 21 points — the third time Iola had lost to the Eagles so far.
The Fillies were sitting at 4-11, and in need of a lift.
“We weren’t playing to our full potential,” senior Lauryn Holloway admitted.
Even worse, the Fillies were missing a key ingredient on the court, Jocelyn Erbert, another senior, conceded. “We didn’t have any energy, and we’re an energy-based team.”
The tide started turning at a Sept. 26 tournament. Slowly but surely, those hard-luck losses began falling in Iola’s favor.
“Finally, we were able to finish some of these games,” classmate Hannah Gardner said. “Years before, we’d let it go and let teams go on long runs.”
Not this time.
Since that midseason lull, the Fillies ended the regular season with authority, winning 11 of their last 15 matches.
“It’s a good feeling,” Erbert said. “It’s one we haven’t had before. Now, we’re more confident we can do it. Before it was like, ‘Oh, it’s Iola.’ Now it’s ‘Oh, it’s Iola!’”
The Fillies hope to continue their upward trajectory Saturday as the postseason gets underway with the Class 4A Substate Tournament, with first serve at 1 p.m. in the IHS gymnasium.
Holloway, Erbert, Gardner and classmate Becca Sprague spoke about the eventful 2020 season, playing amid a pandemic, their long-time bonds on and off the court, and what it would mean to end such a topsy-turvy season on a high note.
IF THE Fillies can outlast a loaded substate bracket with Fort Scott, Chanute, Ottawa and Paola standing in their way, they’ll advance to the state quarterfinal round Tuesday evening.
A win there sends Iola to Hutchinson Sports Arena next weekend for a shot at a state title.
“There are a lot of hard teams,” Holloway said, “but if we keep our energy up and want it as badly as everyone else does, we’re going to go far, I believe.”
Fillies head coach Amanda Strickler-Holman agreed, calling Iola’s bracket perhaps the most evenly balanced among all of the 4A substate sites.
“It’s anyone’s game,” she said. “I don’t think you can predict the winner on paper. It’s going to be, ‘whose day is it?’”
She wouldn’t want it any other way.
“I love it,” she said. “I love competition, and trying to step up to that next level. That’s what I’ve tried to instill. Don’t be satisfied with being OK. Go for something extra.”
That message has been received loud and clear, her players said.
“That’s what keeps us going,” Sprague said. “Her attitude toward the game and her competitiveness drives a lot of us to do better. She really came into our program and helped a lot.”
Sprague and her classmates should know better than anyone.
Strickler-Holman arrived at Iola four years ago, serving an assistant coach during this class’s freshman year. She became Fillies head coach the next year — the same year Sprague, Holloway and Gardner earned spots in Iola’s starting lineup.
“Everyone understands what she wants from our team,” Gardner said. “We just have to execute it.”
Sprague spoke about her coach’s motivation tactics, such as having her players do jumping jacks late in a match to loosen up, and to bring more energy on the court.
Or, the times when she’s called timeout, then simply let the players do the talking.
“When Coach Strickler doesn’t talk, that’s when you know you’re in trouble,” Gardner laughed.
“She’s been frustrated because we weren’t working together and didn’t have the energy we should,” Sprague agreed. “She let us as a team figure out what we needed.”
THE LAST half of the season — which not so coincidentally included the addition of Italian exchange student Veronica Agostini into the starting lineup — has given Iola its most successful stretch of volleyball since the 2014 squad earned fourth place at the state tournament.
“We’re beating teams we’ve never beaten before, like Wellsville and Osawatomie,” Gardner noted
In fact, Iola has defeated Wellsville twice since that lopsided loss early in the year. And the Fillies handed Osawatomie its only loss of the season in the Pioneer League.
Holloway attributes the success to the team’s growing familiarity with its opponents, and the growing belief with one another on the court.
“We tried new things,” Holloway said. “Putting new people in new positions helped us. I believe in connections. Hannah and I have played on the back row for a long time, and we know when the other is getting the ball. We have that trust.”
“All of us are really good friends,” Erbert said. “We encourage each other a lot. I’ve seen a lot more high-fives this year than in the past, and a lot more smiles.”
Sprague sensed the foundation being poured with last year’s squad, even though the Fillies won only six matches in 2019.
“We only lost one senior from last year, so we were able to just keep going and putting it together,” Sprague said. “I’ve definitely improved this season.”
To wit, Sprague leads Iola in kills, service aces, digs and assists.
As a front row hitter, Sprague is fond of blasting the ball between opposing defenders trying for the block. If that doesn’t work, she’ll occasionally change things up, and just give the ball a much softer tap, favoring positioning to power.
“I’m not nearly that powerful,” said Holloway, compared to Sprague. But as a defensive specialist, Holloway thrives on blocking shots.
“Blocking is so much fun, shoving it back in their faces,” Holloway said. “That’s what I like.”
THE GIRLS knew all too well coming into the school year that this year’s season could have been wiped away in an instant because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
It was only a few weeks from when practices were slated to start that the state agreed to have a fall sports season at all.
“We did some summer stuff, and Coach Strickler told us we’d have to take advantage of every game because it may be our last opportunity to play,” Holloway said.
There were a few scares.
Iola’s football team had to essentially shut down entirely for more than two weeks because of possible exposure to an infected player. None of the Mustangs subsequently tested positive for the coronavirus, but the damage to the season was done. Iola hasn’t won a game since returning to action.
“If one of our boys had gotten it, it could have affected us,” Gardner said. “We’re in class together, and some of us have boyfriends on the football team. It could have been very bad, but Coach Strickler had been pretty good with us. We’ve listened to her on how not to go out of our way to get it.”
That has meant plenty of sacrifices, on top of the typical early morning or late afternoon practices.
Such things as late-night gatherings have largely been avoided. “None of us went to Farm-City Days,” Gardner noted.
Even simple things like shopping trips to Kansas City have been, for the most part, avoided this year, she said.
And then there are the matches in sparsely filled gymnasiums.
Iola High, like many other schools, has limited the number of spectators at each volleyball match.
Each player could distribute four tickets to family or close friends.
But no student cheering section.
“It’s really hard not having a student section here,” Gardner said. “Our parents are here, but it’s just not the same as having your own friends support you. It kind of sucks because of how many games we’ve overcome. It would have been more awesome having more fans here. Now we have to tell people, ‘Hey, we won,’ instead of having them here.”
WIN, LOSE or draw, the end is near for this year’s senior class — at least on the volleyball court.
Some, but not all, will be right back at it when basketball season rolls around.
But for players like Sprague, who has her sights set on playing collegiately, bidding adieu to her friends on the court will be tough.
“I’m not gonna lie,” she said. “I’ve already cried about it when it was brought up. Just imagining Strickler yelling at me for the last time will be sad. I don’t know how the juniors feel, but it’s definitely going to be a hard day. Hopefully, it doesn’t end right now.”
Strickler-Holman agreed, comparing it to a parent sending a child off to college. “It’s going to be hard because this is my first class I’ve seen all the way through,” she said. “They did all the extra work. They’re my first group to buy into what we’re trying to do, and what we’re trying to change.”