HURON — Back in August, 10 days into preseason practice, Huron Tiger coach Shelly Buddenhagen laid out the team’s list of goals for the season, benchmarks to aim for as the season progressed.
That team begins postseason play tonight, as they host the Brandon Valley Lynx at Huron Arena, with first serve scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Having that first round game, which in Class “AA” is also the SoDak16 under the new playoff format, at home was the first goal Buddenhagen checked off last summer.
“Having that playoff game at home is huge,” Buddenhagen said Wednesday morning as her team prepared for its game tonight. “Maybe bigger than huge. The team doesn’t have to travel, you are in your home arena in front of what is hopefully a big home crowd. It means a lot to be able to play at home.”
In the new playoff system, which was implemented last season, teams earn power points throughout the season, based on wins and losses, but also on strength of the teams it plays. The bottom two teams - this year that is Yankton and Douglas - don’t move to the postseason, while the other 16 have a one-game SoDak16 playoff game, to punch their ticket to the Class “AA” State Tournament.
On the basis of its 16-7 regular season record, Huron carries the No. 5 seed in Class “AA” entering the SoDak 16 round, and will face 12th-seeded Brandon Valley, which finished 10-17 on the season.
“In double A, the reputation is that the home-court advantage is nearly insurmountable,” Buddenhagen said, “although I guarantee that there is no way that we will overlook Brandon Valley. They are a young, very tall team and more importantly they have nothing to lose. It will be strength against strength. We have to be able to serve and pass. That is where it starts for us.”
Researching the Lynx won’t be a time consuming endeavor, as the two teams played a week ago, with Huron taking a 3-1 win. After a sluggish start, the Tigers dominated Brandon Valley in the win.
“We’re a young team too,” Buddenhagen noted. “We have two sophomores in Tenley (Buddenhagen) and Mikena (Moore), who are in the starting lineup, and two more Libby (Rounds) and Brooke (Schiltz) who have been big contributors down the stretch, and freshman Emily Dale has brought a new facet to our defense.”
Senior Hollee Niehus has been the offensive motor this season, and while Tiger opponents know that the 5-foot, 8-inch senior is the focus, that hasn’t done much to slow her down. Fellow senior Kylie Overbay has played her way into a bigger role down the stretch, while juniors Alaina Dale (hitting and blocking) and Havyn Heinz (digs and defensive stability) have strengthened their role. Senior Isabell Ford has been a reliable defender when called upon this season.
And there is the biggest strength of the Tigers, which has been developed over months of play and practice. They are deep and present a wide array of issues for teams on the other side of the net to deal with.
“We’ve built some good depth this year and through that we have become comfortable with trying different things,” coach Buddenhagen said. “We’ve had different girls step up this season and that gives us more options and just makes us more difficult to prepare for.”
As the season moves forward, Huron has faced all of the other other 15 teams in the SoDak16, including two matches against most of the ESD teams still playing. In short, there aren’t many surprises remaining to discovery and exploitation.
“No, at this time of year there aren’t many surprises,” Buddenhagen agreed. “We do what we do and others teams do what they do and whoever does their thing better will win. We feel that on any given night we can play with anyone and what I really like with our team is that they are still working to improve. They have continued to make the little things better because a point here or there can make all the difference now.”
Another goal for the team was to win the Eastern South Dakota Conference regular season title, and with their 6-2 record, Huron ended in a tie with Brookings for second, behind 8-0 Watertown.
“If you would have told me at the beginning of the year that we would finish 6-2 and tied for second in the conference, I would have been so happy,” coach Buddenhagen said. “The kids set high goals, they really wanted to win the ESD. The conference is really deep this year and we are elated with our finish.”
The next goal on the horizon can come to fruition tonight, as a win will put the Tigers into the promised land of the state tournament, set for Nov. 15-17 in Sioux Falls.
“We have to serve and pass and get the ball to our hitters in system,” Buddenhagen said. “If we can do those things, we’ll be competitive.”