Over the course of the 2020 volleyball season, Coach Shelly Buddenhagen’s Huron Tigers have put check marks in nearly every box on the team’s preseason goal list.
Home playoff game…check
State tournament qualification…check
Eastern South Dakota Conference Champion…check
The only thing left on the list is to win the state tournament, a task that the third-seeded Tigers will begin Thursday, when they battle the No. 6 Brandon Valley Lynx at 5 p.m. in the Swiftel Center in Brookings.
“We’re ready to go,” said an eager coach Buddenhagen Tuesday morning. “We’ve had good practices. We’re always excited to make it to the state tournament and this year is no different.” Huron’s return to the Class “AA” State Tournament marks the 12th year in a row that the Tigers are playing on the season’s final weekend.
Huron will carry a record of 16-4 into Thursday’s game, including a five-set win over the Lynx on Nov. 3, which clinched a share of the ESD title for the Tigers. Brandon Valley enters the State “AA” with an 18-7 mark on the season and returns to the tournament after a four-year hiatus.
As they have been most of the season, Buddenhagen said that the Tigers will focus on defense.
“The old adage is ‘Defense wins championships,’” she said, “and that is true. In volleyball, there are lots of elements to defense. Our first line of defense is our serve game. We will need to serve well.”
Most people associate successful serving with how many aces a team can record and Huron is no stranger to aces. On the season, 230 of the team’s 1,680 serves were aces. But Buddenhagen sees a successful serve game as serving well and making the serves tough to return, with a lesser emphasis on scoring aces.
“We’re short and athletic,” Buddenhagen noted. “All season long we have worked to create chaos for our opponent, through serves, blocking, whatever we can to get a team out of its system and uncomfortable.”
For a smaller team, the Tigers have amassed more than 200 blocks or assisted blocks, which is another line of defense that Huron will need to keep its offense in system - a dig, pass to the setter, and a spike attempt - against a tough “AA” field.
Leading the list of Tigers are seniors Tenley Buddenhagen, Brooke Schiltz and Libby Rounds. For Tenley Buddenhagen, a setter, it is her fourth state tournament, as she saw action off the bench as a freshman. Schiltz and Rounds, both stalwart hitters and blockers, have two years of state tournament starting experience for the Tigers. All three were named All-ESD earlier this month.
Fellow seniors Mikena Moore and Mattie Huber have filled roles throughout the season. While Schiltz leads the Tigers in kills with 220 on the season, Moore is second with 161. Rounds has tallied 135 kills, junior Emily Dale, who leads the team in blocks, has 138 kills and sophomore Brynn Gose has notched 132 kills on the season.
That, in part, is what makes the Tigers difficult to defend. In any given match, as many as six players could go for double figures in kills as Huron attacks from all angles and positions on the front line. Even Tenley Buddenhagen, the setter, has 71 kills as she has consistently found an open area, when quick-kill opportunities present themselves.
Defensively, Mattie Huber and her younger sister Bryn Huber have provided the back-line support that the Tiger’s defensive approach requires. Senior Lexi Gilbert has also played a role as a back line defender and passer.
“At this point in the season,” coach Buddenhagen said, “we know about the other teams and they know us. We know what we need to do to be successful. We know that we thrive in chaos. The kids don’t get panicked and what I think I find most telling is that they are continuing to work hard in practice and in film study as they try to get better.”
Buddenhagen said that it is often a thin line that decides success at the state tournament, and she said that her approach continues to be to control what you can through practice, preparation and discipline and to work hard for every point.
“We have learned so much this year,” coach Buddenhagen said. “The win in Brandon Valley is a good example. A road win against anyone in the ESD is a tough thing and we persevered and won it. That match made us better because we had to find a way to win.
“We are who we are,” she added. “We can be successful if we make the right plays at the right times. We’re not settling. We’re gonna do what we do and let the chips fall.”