By CONOR NICHOLL
Like many, Rossville head volleyball coach Thomas Colwell III entered education because he had great role models growing up. The group included teachers, coaches and his family.
Colwell paused and took a few seconds to compose himself when he mentioned family.
“My family has been a big influence on the career path that I have chosen,” Colwell said. “Teaching, coaching, it’s not really a glamorous life, but it’s a great life to be a part of.”
His uncle, Kevin Colwell, has served as a football coach in the Blue Valley and Olathe school districts. Notably, Kevin was a math teacher and coach at Blue Valley West from ’01-15. Thomas is named after his grandfather, Tom Colwell, who is a hall of fame Kansas basketball coach. Tom Colwell notably coached at Bishop Miege, Blue Valley North and St. Thomas Aquinas. The lifetime achievement award for basketball coaching in the Kansas City area is named for him.
Colwell III’s father was a football player. Thomas was, too. He played a key role on Olathe South’s 2007 state runner-up team. Thomas wanted to be a football coach.
“And repay a lot of the favors that my aunts and uncles and teachers and coaches, the gift that they gave to me,” Colwell said.
Colwell first interviewed for a P.E. and football coaching position. He came out with a social studies and assistant volleyball coaching job. Colwell “knew nothing” about volleyball. He worked a pair of seasons under Melissa Holle, who has won two state titles at Hanover the last two falls.
Colwell significantly learned the game from Holle and studied drills from YouTube. Then, he was head volleyball coach at Blue Valley-Randolph two years and currently is in his fourth season at Rossville. He has improved his win total each fall, from 21 to 25 to 30 to currently 32-5.
“I actually love coaching girls,” Colwell said. “I never thought I would want to be coaching girls, but I would never go back. I love the game, I love the kids.”
The family thread and historical 2022 volleyball success connects Colwell and Neodesha coach Jodi Stover. Both programs have enjoyed their best seasons in more than a decade. This Saturday, both will likely play a rival at least the fourth occasion this season in a 3A sub-state.
Rossville (32-5) is the top seed in the Silver Lake sub-state. West Franklin (31-5), Olathe Heritage Christian Academy (28-7) and Silver Lake (24-11) are contenders. Rossville beat SL twice Tuesday.
Neodesha (34-3) is in the Eureka sub-state. Neodesha just defeated Eureka on Tuesday. Rival Humboldt (30-5) and Eureka (27-6) are the top competitors. Neodesha has played Humboldt three times this year.
“That’s been the story for about the last two or three sub-states,” Stover said. “Last year, we played Humboldt four times, and we saw them again in sub-state. The same thing was true two years before that. It definitely makes it interesting. We definitely have some battles going back and forth with them.”
This could be one of the final years under the current sub-state model. A new proposal was recommended to the KSHSAA board for the Oct. 2022 meeting.
“Our girls can do it”
This year, Rossville has played 3A Mid-East League rival Silver Lake four times. Rossville lost the first two. On Tuesday, the Bulldawgs defeated SL twice and captured its first MEL volleyball crown since ’05. Rossville won in three sets and two sets.
The Bulldawgs have multiple three- and four-year starters. Senior libero Brinley Dyche, known for her genial personality, has more than 1,300 career digs and is the program’s backbone and leader.
Junior Kinsey Perine is among the state leaders with 6.5 kills per set and has cleared 1,000 career kills. She set the school mark with 437 kills as a sophomore. Rossville was unranked much of the year and is currently seventh in the class via the Kansas coaches.
“Her volleyball smarts are probably the best I’ve ever seen with any athlete I’ve ever coached in any sport,” Colwell said.
Junior Kinley Porter is an all-around player, key attacker and setter for three rotations. Juniors Katie Spielman and Emma Mitchell are each 5-foot-10 and top blockers and hitters. Spielman is a Clay Center transfer, Mitchell is a major 2024 basketball prospect. Giulia Caldart is an Italian foreign exchange student and has emerged at setter.
“The aggressiveness and the confidence really,” Colwell said. “I don’t even think that it’s something that I really coached. It’s just instinct for them, and again, that’s why they are such a fun group. … Amazing passers, and honestly, I can’t even take credit for it, the girls have put in the work.”
Since 2007, Rossville and Silver Lake, located seven miles apart, have played a remarkable 42 times. They will likely meet up again this weekend in the 3A Silver Lake sub-state. West Franklin and Heritage Christian also won its conference titles.
HCA has won 2A and 3A the last two seasons and has two Power 5 commits in Rachel Van Gorp and Cy Rae Campbell.
Because 3-1A has geographic sub-states, the best 3A schools often play each other 3-5 times a year. Rossville’s reward for its great season is to play on SL’s court against its rival – and then likely versus HCA.
SIK has also written about the disparity with 2A West sub-states, specifically grouping undefeated Sedgwick, Berean Academy and Inman together. It’s a similar trend in 3A.
“Our girls can do it,” Colwell said. “I feel like we are ready.”
“A lot of coaches that have gone to bat for us”
MaxPreps, which uses a statistical formula that includes strength of schedule, has HCA No. 4, Rossville No. 7 and Silver Lake No. 10 in the classification. WF is No. 18.
If a proposal passes, though, situations like Rossville’s and Neodesha’s will significantly lessen. Among other changes, higher seeds will have more reward and continual rematches are less likely.
“It seems like the past few years, we have been in the really tough sub-states,” Colwell said.
Rossville’s only state appearances since 2000 came in ’04 and ’05, per KSHSAA archives. Colwell is aware of the possible change.
The rule change, spearheaded by longtime Nemaha Central coach Jessica Koch, would split the state into four groups of 16. It would create two sub-states/pods within the groups based on overall seeding from win/loss record. It passed at the administrative level by a 27-3 vote.
For Class 3A, the Nemaha and Silver Lake sub-states would form the Northeast Region. Neodesha would be in the Southeast.
The proposed Northeast Regional would have one pod that includes Nemaha Central and Heritage Christian. The second pod would feature Rossville, Silver Lake and West Franklin. However, Rossville and SL could only meet in the championship – instead of the likely semifinals Saturday.
In the Southeast regional, Neodesha and Humboldt would be in one pod, though could only meet in the final. Eureka would be in another pod.
The proposed changes don’t affect 2022.
“Our philosophy is, ‘We are not looking to go to state and get third place. We are looking to go get first,’” Colwell said. “I guess in that context, it is what it is. It’s not something we can really do anything about this year. I know that’s there’s been a lot of coaches throughout the state that have wanted volleyball sub-state to be restructured at the 3, 2, 1A level, and there’s been a lot of coaches that have gone to bat for us to get some of the better teams at the state tournament.”
“But again, I just feel like if you don’t win sub-state, it’s kind of an excuse, and we are not looking to make excuses,” he added. “We are looking to go out there and perform well and make it to the state tournament, and then from there, we can make it our goal to get the state championship.”
“I wanted the same thing for them”
Neodesha is 135 miles south of Rossville on US-75. Coach Stover, like Colwell, comes from a family of coaches.
Stover (nee Miller) went to Stockton. Her dad, Jack, was the principal and girls’ basketball coach, among other coaching roles. She went to practice everyday. Stover’s childhood idol was Susan Hamilton, still among the Mid-Continent League’s all-time leading scorers.
Matt Miller was part of a state champion team at Stockton his senior year. Jodi’s other brother, Mike, enjoyed a great Fort Hays basketball career and remains in the top-11 in Tiger history in points and rebounds. She lettered with FHSU basketball from ’86-90.
Plus, her husband, Darrin’s brother is David Stover, a longtime coach at Norton. Darrin’s sister is Jeri Dubbert (Stover) of Beloit. Jeri’s and Dave Dubbert’s four children were highly known for their athletic success at Beloit/St. John’s-Tipton. Davis Dubbert competes for Wichita State track, and Lauryn is on the Newman basketball team.
This season, the Blue Streaks are 34-3, the best mark in Stover’s 13 seasons as head coach. Stover has more than 200 victories and coached 6-foot-3 Sophia Rohling, currently the No. 3 point scorer on the Wichita State volleyball team.
Neodesha’s last two state berths have come in 1999 and 2015.
This year, Neodesha is 2-1 against Humboldt. The loss cost Neodesha the Tri-Valley League title. The teams have split the last 26 meetings, including alternating the last six.
Neodesha starts three sophomores and a freshman. Another freshman, 5-foot-10 Kimmy Combs, was in the starting lineup, but suffered a season-ending knee injury the third week against Caney Valley.
“They have grown up fast, I guess so to speak, and played their roles very well,” Stover said. “So it’s very exciting for us, and the future of our program.”
This year, Stover has coached many of the Blue Streak players since peewee volleyball in third grade.
“Almost all of these girls, I have known them for most of their lives,” Stover said.
The group includes two of her five children: sophomore Sam and senior Kristen.
“We just wanted our kids to go to a small school and be able to play all the sports and do all the things,” Stover said.
The sisters has always been around mom’s program. As youngsters, they served as managers, traveled, kept the book and video.
“It’s what I wanted,” Stover said. “My dad was a coach when I was growing up, so I wanted the same thing for them.”
Senior Raeliegh Booth and Kristen are captains.
“For the most part, Kristen and Raeliegh are both very easy going,” Stover said. “And so being our senior leaders, I think they kind of set the tone for our team, and they are very nice to the younger girls, and are very good leaders for those younger girls, and I think we have had a great year because of that.”
“She wants our team to advance”
Neodesha’s school record holder in the discus, Kristen has MIAA track looks and has cleared 1,000 career kills. She ranks among the state leaders in hitting percentage (.443) and is believed to be Kansas’ lone player to pace her team in kills (353) and assists (375). Kristen starts on the back row.
“Team success is her main goal, and she wants to win,” coach Stover said. “She wants our team to advance, and so that’s all she thinks about. That’s what she wants.”
Sophomore Prayer Roebuck enjoyed great improvements in her game through offseason club. She has 340 kills and .334 hitting. Roebuck just played front row as a freshman. Growing up, Sam and Roebuck would always get put on opposite teams in Neodesha’s youth leagues to keep teams even.
“It seems like I have been coaching against Prayer since she was itty-bitty, and so now it’s kind of nice to have her on my team instead of against me,” Stover said.
She has handled all six rotations and done a little setting this fall. Before this year, Kristen and Roebuck had barely done any setting.
Sam Stover has paces with 251 digs. Sophomore Darcie Dyke (194 digs) and freshman libero Dalia Johnson (147) are strong. Some of the girls make the 200-plus round trip drive to Wichita to play for the well-known Shockwave volleyball program.
“They are really interested, and they really like it,” Stover said. “And they want to get better, and that’s so that’s just contagious for our younger girls.”
“They want it. They want it bad.”
When Rossville’s Caldart first came to the United States, she, like most foreign exchange students had a language barrier. Colwell asked Caldart what positions she had played in the past? At the time, Caldart didn’t know the English words for volleyball positions. Caldart said she was a setter.
A week before sub-state, Colwell discovered Caldart had actually never set in her life. Once he found out, Colwell told Caldart he couldn’t believe she’d never set. Plus, Caldart had not played volleyball in six years.
“She is just an absolute natural,” Colwell said.
Colwell has been most pleased with Rossville’s ability to play with out-of-system balls. If the setter gets the first ball, sometimes teams’ offenses break down.
“Just such a team effort by everybody,” Colwell. “And the effort for each other is just unreal. They want it. They want it bad.”
Rossville uses juniors Ryan Leathers and Kendra Hurla that step up and put the ball back into system. Leathers is a defensive specialist. Dyche and Perine are also superb passers. In practice, Rossville coaches challenge the players with hard attacks each day. Colwell called the passing “the difference maker.” When he first got to Rossville, Colwell believed passing was a top strength of many players.
“Our girls are incredible passers,” Colwell said. “Passers never get all the glory or anything.”
Hurla has won two state wrestling titles. Both are strong defenders, and Leathers is used in a multi-purpose role. Colwell complimented the duo on their hustling and diving ability to get balls back up to the attackers.
“They just do a great job of passing and taking out of system balls and putting them back into system,” Colwell said. “We always get a good attack on it. I feel like that is one of our big strengths. But overall, especially with the new girls, our girls that have been kind of veterans for us, they have really accepted them.
On Oct. 15, Rossville defeated Smoky Valley in three sets.
Rossville lost the first set to SV in a shootout and made some significant adjustments in its attacking. The Bulldawgs had some slight defensive changes.
Rossville held SV to 25.6 kill percentage, the second-lowest for the Vikings this fall. SV has finished second and final four the last two years at state.
SV is 29-8 and has junior Hope Duncan, one of the state’s top all-around players. The Vikings are the No. 1 seed in the 3A in its own sub-state. Everyone else in the SV sub-state has at least 12 losses.
Rossville, though, will enter a significantly tougher sub-state Saturday, a postseason model that could undergo change.
“That match against Smoky Valley, I was so incredibly proud of our girls,” Colwell said. “…It just kind of clicked, and everybody was playing together really well. They were taking care of their responsibilities.”