By CONOR NICHOLL
“Embrace the Grind,” long winter trips and focus on the present: How Andale, Blue Valley North and Smith Center earned long-awaited state titles at state volleyball
In mid-October, Garden Plain High School invited Andale volleyball coach Kaylie Bergkamp as the guest speaker for its National Honor Society inductees. Bergkamp, a Garden Plain graduate, had won an ‘08 state volleyball title with the Owls. Bergkamp’s mother, Gina Clark, is the longtime highly successful GP volleyball coach with more than 650 career wins.
At first, Bergkamp didn’t know what to write. She talked with her mom. Bergkamp thought of her father, Alan. He passed away on Feb. 21, 2016, a few months before Kaylie started at Andale.
Bergkamp focused on “Embrace the Grind,” a mantra that her father always said and had on a sticky note in his office.
She used the “embrace the grind” theme in 2018, her first year as Andale’s volleyball coach. That season, Andale finished fourth before back-to-back state runner-up showings, tied for the best two finishes in school history.
Bergkamp was trying to come up with 10 points for the speech. She was reading, and she was crying. Bergkamp told her mom, “I don’t think I can get through this and read this.”
“When I was writing, the lights flickered,” Bergkamp said. “I was like, ‘This is kind of weird.’ Some people might say it is weird, but you always look for signs of things that they are with you. But I felt like in that moment, he was.”
After that Bergkamp resolved.
“OK, I can do this, I am tough, my dad tells me to toughen it up,” Bergkamp said.
Three weeks later, Bergkamp believed the lights flickered again – this time at the Class 4A state tournament.
Last Saturday, Bergkamp and Andale broke through to win the state championship in an epic 26-24, 23-25, 25-21 comeback win versus Ottawa. Andale trailed 7-1 and 11-4 in the third set.
Buoyed by Bergkamp’s coaching, 5:50 a.m. summer workouts, several mantras including “Embrace the Grind,” and “Don’t Ring the Bell,” likely 4A Player of the Year McKenzie Fairchild and excellent serving, Andale won its first state crown.
“You appreciate it a lot more as a coach when you win it, because you know all the time and investment that goes into it,” Bergkamp said.
Andale’s title encapsulated a superb two days of state volleyball Friday and Saturday in seven classifications across four venues. Class 6A Blue Valley North, Andale, 2A Smith Center and 1A, Division I Spearville all won its first volleyball title. Each program had coaches who had finished state runner-up in volleyball at least twice in their careers.
The five longtime state powers, Centralia, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. James Academy, Bishop Miege and Washburn Rural, have combined for 65 state crowns. While all five reached the final four, none won a title this season. It marked the first time that occurred since ’05, per KSHSAA records.
At Blue Valley North, coach Matt Allin has won 660 matches in 25 years. North was state runner-up in ’00, ’05 and ’11.
“It’s just tough,” Allin said. “Because when you get so close so many times, you kind of have those demons sometimes in your head, and I think that one thing that I tried to do this year was just focus on the present and not worry about the past. We only told the girls worry about what you can control. And I think that the coaching staff took that into consideration also for us. What happened in the past is in the past. This is a new bunch of girls. None of them were born in 2000.”
Smith Center coach Nick Linn, whose Lady Red took runner-up last season, has more than 950 career victories. Syble Thompson, a veteran coach in southwest Kansas, paced the Lancers to a surprising crown. Linn, also SC’s longtime girls’ basketball coach, won a state title in the winter in 2013.
Smith Center finished 43-2, won 17 straight matches to end the year and set a school mark for victories. Senior Tallon Rentschler, a Fort Hays commit and expected 2A Player of the Year, finished her career with 1,495 kills and 388 blocks, by far school records. She hit .434 this season, and Smith Center hit .362 as a team. Senior Ashlyn Long, a Hutchinson Community College commit, delivered 385 kills and a .411 attack.
“In volleyball, you go down there and you have eight teams that are all fairly equal,” Linn said. “And it seems like in basketball, we went down there to Manhattan, and you win one and you are in the semis. We have had more success in basketball from that standpoint in terms of advancing further in the state tournament. But I just think volleyball is tougher. You have got to have chemistry more in volleyball.”
Offensive firepower and national attention for BVN
Blue Valley North finished 40-2 and ended with 25 consecutive victories. Last year, BVN finished 15-13. This fall, the Mustangs opened with a four-set win against Olathe Northwest on Aug. 31.
Ten days later, the season changed in the first Eastern Kansas League triangular with defending 6A champion Blue Valley West and St. James Academy. BVN defeated both teams in straight sets. The Mustangs were 3-10 in its last 13 matches were SJA and were 0-3 against West in 2020.
“The team and the community really, when that happened, I think everybody started to take notice,” Allin said. “And I think to an extent, the coaching staff. We always have a goal to win a state title. I think that was a big night for us.”
Washburn Rural was undefeated and the favorite entering state before West beat the Junior Blues in the state semifinals. In the finals, North beat West, 25-10, 25-23. North defeated West in pool play, and Olathe Northwest in the state semifinals.
“We improved a little bit in every aspect of the game, but… we were a much more offensive team this year,” Allin said.
North, mentioned several times on SIK this fall, had six players with at least 100 kills. Senior Clara Benskin has committed to Colorado-Colorado Springs. Senior Morgan Debow is headed to Nebraska-Omaha. Senior Jasmine Dulan (247 kills) is recruited by high-level Division Is, including North Carolina State. Benskin was among the state’s top blockers with 113. Junior Nora Carlsen is a multiple year starter on the back line.
Then, North its elite freshmen duo of Jenna McClure and Logan Parks (team-high 324 kills). Allin expects the 5-foot-11 Parks to be an elite recruit. North hit .264 and averaged kills on 40 percent of swings. Allin believed the team was smarter with its shots this season.
“We knew that she was going to make a huge impact for us,” Allin said of Parks.
Parks and sophomore Janelle Green served as the two setters. Green has been a top-150 national player in the Class of 2024, per Prep Volleyball. Green’s father is former Kansas City Chief quarterback Trent Green, a current CBS broadcaster. During Green’s game last Sunday, CBS congratulated Janelle and the BVN squad on national TV.
“These girls I would say the big thing is composure,” Allin said, comparing ’21 to past squads. “We just kept our composure. The biggest evidence of that was in the semifinals against Olathe Northwest, because we did not play good volleyball. But we just kept our composure, and we just gritted it out and didn’t fall apart. We just kept fighting.”
“We were on” – Helped by summer work and long winter trips, Smith Center doesn’t drop a set
Smith Center has long enjoyed success with coach Linn, with 16 trips to the state tournament, including nine in the last 11. Like Andale, SC has its summer weights program and notably conditioning week.
“I will admit, conditioning is my least favorite week of the whole summer,” Rentschler told me in August. “We usually always do the same thing, like it’s the week of August 9 through the 13th. … Mr. Linn is a big person about having a good, hard summer, because that’s kind of what jumpstarts us all into the preseason. It just starts everything basically. And he has never been one to go soft in the summer. We still have a summer, but we know that we have to work to be successful in season.”
While Smith Center’s summer work is well-known, the winter trips are not. Especially in the urban areas, club volleyball teams are generally with a close drive for players. That is usually not the case in western Kansas.
SC’s key volleyball players all play basketball. In the winter, the Lady Red have normal basketball practice all week. On Wednesdays and/or Thursdays, Rentschler would have volleyball practice in Hays. Smith Center finished basketball around 6:15 p.m. Rentschler drove to Hays, which is 181 round trip miles. She had to be there by 7:45-8 p.m.
Then, Rentschler didn’t leave Hays until 10 to 10:15 p.m. range. Linn was supportive of both sports. Rentschler played club mainly with girls she faced in the Mid-Continent League. In Rentschler’s first year in club, she was the only girl from SC playing. She first drove to Phillipsburg and picked up Panther standout Heather Schemper. Either Rentschler’s or Schemper’s parents drove.
Afterward, they always went to McDonalds, since Smith Center and Phillipsburg don’t have a McDonalds. As the club years went on, girls from nearby Norton and Logan joined. Rentschler still plans on playing club this winter, too, her fourth in the program.
“That kind of made it easier, because we were all in the same boat, like we had those late nights,” Rentschler said.
The work helped Smith Center finished second to Olathe Heritage Christian Academy (HCA) in 2020, which marked the first volleyball final in school annals.
SC and HCA were the significant favorites in 2A during the fall. Then, Heritage Christian bumped to 3A and became the classification’s smallest school. HCA defeated Cheney in the 3A finals. Linn called missing HCA bittersweet. He wanted the rematch, though he also knew the path to a 2A crown was clearer. Smith Center returned its entire team from 2020.
At state, Smith Center did not drop a set with wins versus Colgan, Wabaunsee and Hillsboro. On Saturday, SC beat Ellinwood in the semifinals and 25-23, 25-12 versus Hillsboro in the championship match. SC went 4-0 at state the last two seasons versus Hillsboro. Coach Clark’s Garden Plain squad took third in 2A. Linn has always had strong respect for coach Clark.
“Saturday, we were on,” Linn said. “I thought we played very well Saturday, and Friday we got to playing well. We didn’t start off great, but got to playing well.”
Smith Center never switched courts at state, a rarity that Linn said helped the Lady Red. In addition to SC’s two key seniors, Hutchinson has already cleared 1,000 career assists. Senior libero Maggie Peterson, juniors Maile Hrabe and Haley Feldmann and sophomores Dakota Kattenberg and Gracie Kirchhoff were key players. Throughout the season, SC worked on serve-receive after it struggled in that area versus Heritage Christian.
“We did a whole lot better job with that,” Linn said.
Similar to Andale, Smith Center trailed 9-1 in a match Friday to Wabaunsee and senior Lauren Schutter, an Illinois State commit. SC came back.
“All of our matches, it seemed like throughout the year, the girls don’t panic – ever,” Linn said.
“Never ring the bell”
Clark long had a theme for each team at Garden Plain. In 2015, Clark had the Navy SEAL theme when Garden Plain defeated Silver Lake for the 3A state championship. The theme epitomizes toughness and grit.
This year, Bergkamp adopted the Navy SEAL “Never ring the bell” theme for Andale. In SEAL training, ringing the bell in the middle of the courtyard means they have given up. Andale had finished second two years in a row. The Indians put a bell in the gym on a wooden stand as reminder. In the last 12 to 15 points of the state final, the student section was chanting “never ring the bell.”
“It’s easy to quit, it’s easy to give in when things don’t go our way,” Bergkamp said. “…When we were down 1-7 and 11-4, we could have easily just given up, but we chose to dig in and play with some grit and determination.”
On Facebook, a memory popped up from six years ago. Afterward, Alan posted “Seal the Deal” to honor the ‘15 state title.
That was Alan’s last state tournament he watched Gina. On Facebook after Andale won state, she honored her father and posted “seal the deal.” Andale finished 40-3, one loss different than Garden Plain’s 43-2 mark in ’15. In four years, Bergkamp is already Andale’s all-time volleyball wins leader.
“Really anything I ever do, the mentality that I have, the work ethic I have, the mindset that I have comes from him,” Bergkamp said.
“Everybody looks up to her”
Bergkamp (Clark) won a state title as a player under her mom for Garden Plain in 2008. She and Camille Hubert, who later started at Fort Hays, were both 5-foot-9 junior first team all-state outside hitters.
Bergkamp then hurt her knee before her senior year, an injury she labeled devastating. The main school that recruited her stopped communicating. Her mom significantly helped with her daughter’s recruiting.
The one college visit that Kaylie’s dad didn’t attend was Division III Minnesota-Morris. Gina never thought Kaylie would go there because of the cold weather. Kaylie immediately loved the place. She competed in volleyball and track at Morris, a place that instilled a family-type mentality.
At Morris, Bergkamp started all four years and was a three-time first team all-conference pick. She still has two of the top-seven single season dig totals in school history. In track, she was an All-American in the javelin when she set a school record with a throw of 141 feet, 4 inches, a mark that still stands. She is seventh all-time in the hammer throw for Morris.
“My college coaches up there were very similar to that of my mom,” Bergkamp said. “And I knew that if I was going to be 715 miles away from home that I needed a support system that was going to take care of me as a player.”
When she came back to Kansas, Bergkamp knew that was the type of coach she wanted to be – and currently is. Coach Clark has now won three state titles, including ’18. Kaylie’s youngest sister, Claire, was on that team. It was an emotional postgame as they remembered their dad.
“For us, these last three years has been very tough,” coach Clark told me after ’18 state. “And we’ve had to rely on each other in the deepest ways, so at home, and in the gym, everything we do as a family is together and just counting on each other.”
This summer, Bergkamp collected a prestigious honor when she earned top 30-under-30 volleyball coaches in the nation by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. In addition to volleyball, Bergkamp has built successful academia at Andale, including the College and Career programs that have provided more than 100 internships.
“Relationships she builds with people she coaches is by far what is the game changer for her,” Morgan Bruna, the 4A Player of the Year, told me in April 2020. “….Giving 110 percent in whatever you do, whether it’s sports, whether it’s school, like work, anything. She’s an inspiration for everybody. Everybody looks up to her on the team.”
Andale is on the short list every year for best all-around sports program. The football team is currently on a 34-game winning streak, longest in Kansas. Andale has five all-time football titles, the last two with current coach Dylan Schmidt. The Indians won state wrestling last winter. Andale girls have won four straight track titles. The boys have five track crowns since ’13. Consistent success has come in softball when Andale co-ops with Garden Plain.
Andale volleyball reached state in ’14-16, which were the first appearances since ’89. In basketball, Andale reached state in ’15, its first trip in 13 years. Since ‘17, Andale volleyball and basketball have a combined seven final four or better state showings, per KSHSAA archives.
In the summer, Andale girls lift at 5:50 a.m. four days a week. Bergkamp uses a familiar word – “grind” – in reference to summer weights. At the Clay Center tournament this summer, a parent looked at the athletic Andale girls and asked: What do you do? Bergkamp responded it’s the daily weight room work that impacted all the athletics.
Six girls did not miss a day of summer weights, including senior setter Annabeth Baalmann and senior libero Grace Gorges and sophomore Eva Preister. The other three were non-varsity but stayed with the varsity to help practice the week of state. Andale had 25 girls in its gym up until the day before state, even though just 12 dressed for varsity.
“That’s what we have to do in order to be a state champion,” she said. “But I don’t think in the past we have ever really, before I started, we didn’t really have a female in the weight room.”
Outside of the weights and work, Andale has different activities, such as Fun Fridays. She writes the players encouragement notes before every match, sometimes at 10 p.m. at night. She had community members do likewise before state. The players have appreciated the notes.
“Even if the tables were turned and we hadn’t have won, I would still appreciate them and love them just as much as I would if they were state champions,” Bergkamp said. “Because what they represent at Andale High School, we talk a lot about programs and what they represent.
“I think that our volleyball program at Andale High School stands out because we work hard in the classroom,” she added. “We volunteer. We play together. We are respectful. They are just overall really good women, and I think that if you don’t model that yourself, that’s really hard to get your players to buy in, too.”
“I saw the lights flicker”
Still, Bergkamp wanted to win the title. At a point in the third set versus Ottawa when Andale was struggling, Bergkamp had a thought of “we can’t do this again.”
“We can’t be second again,” Bergkamp said. “And I saw the lights flicker. And I don’t know if they actually flickered or if it was just in my mind, but it was kind of, I felt like in that moment it was a reminder from my dad that ‘You are not done yet, you are going to get it done,’ kind of like a little bit of a sign.”
In the week of state, Andale spent a lot of time mentally preparing. For the past four years, Andale has broke down every its huddle as “State Champs” and spoken the goal into existence. That included the summer weightlifting, summer skill work and during the season.
Andale used a term called BRAVE, which is used to mentally prepare for matches and games and “making sure you get into the zone.”
Andale used BRAVE when Bergkamp called a timeout trailing 7-1 in the third set against Ottawa. The B stands for Breathe.
“Breathe in confidence,” Bergkamp said. “And breathe out any frustrations and anxiety.”
R is for recognize – to look at body language and self-talk. Bergkamp doesn’t want any what-if statements or what-if thoughts. The A is “I Am” statements. Even though Andale faced a big deficit, Bergkamp made her team say “I am a state champ.” Twice.
“They looked at me for a second,” Bergkamp said. “And I think they probably might of thought I was crazy when it’s 1-7 in the third set. … I think at that moment, that was a game changer a little bit.”
V for is Visualize, to see the good and the bad things that can happen and playing those scenarios out. E is Energy.
“The only person that’s responsible for your energy is yourself,” Bergkamp said.
“Serving definitely carried us”
The major statistical difference between Andale 2020 and Andale 2021 came in serving. The Indians graduated several key seniors, notably Katelyn Fairchild, who was first team all-state volleyball and basketball and was the highest finishing prep athlete nationally at the U.S. Olympic trials in javelin during the summer. Fairchild currently throws javelin for Texas A&M. Andale’s hitting numbers, while still excellent, were slightly lower than last fall.
Andale averaged aces on 12.1 percent of attempts and was plus-90 between aces and serving errors. Six players had between 31 and 46 aces, several whom were JV in 2020 and/or primarily served on varsity this fall.
Preister paced with 46 aces, one more than junior Camdyn Winter. Senior Isabel Shackelford delivered 31 aces. Fairchild, Schrandt and Baalmann all had between 33 and 36 aces. Last year, Andale had aces on 9.3 percent of attempts and was plus-23 in aces to errors.
“Our JV players last year, we developed them into some really strong servers,” Bergkamp said.
Winter and Shackelford, both who primarily served this season, were not on varsity last year. Preister was previously a role player. Bergkamp said teams win matches through serving and passing.
“There’s science that backs that up at every level of the game,” Bergkamp said.
Andale spends 60 to 75 percent of practices on serving and passing only, generally the first half of practice. At the start of practice, Andale puts out tarps for one or two zones to hit. Andale players need to hit the zones and report the numbers daily. Bergkamp calls out serving zones, and estimated Andale hits its serving zones 90 percent of the time.
“Statistically proven, the jump float is the most effective serve in volleyball, and so that’s what a majority of our kids are doing,” Bergkamp said. “And I think that that’s worked. We are going to take some misses here and there, but for the most part, we created a lot of out of system balls against people.”
In the last 2.5 weeks, Shackelford crafted her short serve, a play that Andale worked into the mix. Ottawa outhit Andale in the final. However, Ottawa had one ace against three serve errors. Andale had seven aces versus three errors, including a pair from Winter. In the state semifinal match versus Baldwin, Andale out aced the Bulldogs, 5-0.
“I thought serving definitely carried us through the state tournament for sure,” Bergkamp said.
“Our senior class”
Schrandt suffered an injury at the three-quarters mark of the year after the Newton tournament when she had a stress reaction in her leg. Andale arranged its rotations and put junior Jenna Kuepker on the outside for awhile while Schrandt healed. Kuepker, a JV player in ’20, posted 153 kills.
“We develop players at all levels, so that they can step in,” Bergkamp said. “So that we don’t have those big holes to fill every year.”
Gorges and Baalmann were multiple year starters. Baalmann recorded more than 1,500 career assists. Bergkamp greatly credited those seniors when Andale trailed 7-1 and 11-4 in the third set. Once in the huddle, Baalmann told Andale, “We are not going to do this again. We are not taking the second trophy home.”
“That was just a lot of girls’ mentality,” Bergkamp said.
Senior middle hitter Jaley Eck, known for more of a reserved personality, also stepped up into a leadership role. Senior Kelli Wegerer didn’t play at the state tournament but played throughout the year. Wegerer brought the BRAVE mantra to Bergkamp’s attention and asked to try that at practice.
“For a kid who isn’t getting a lot of playing time, but is willing to sacrifice that and do whatever it takes, I think that says a lot about our senior class,” Bergkamp said.
Ottawa, which earned a marquee win versus Bishop Miege in the semifinals, joined the 1996 runner-up team as the best finish in school history.
Senior setter Kirsten Evans, a Fort Hays commit, has more than 3,000 career assists. Sophomores Emery Keebaugh and senior Sofia Ficken were the top hitters with a combined 756 kills. Andale held Ottawa to a .148 hitting percentage, the fourth-lowest since Oct. 2.
“We just knew that their middles maybe weren’t as active as ours were,” Bergkamp said. “And so we cheated out toward the outside and took the risk of single blocking the opposite side and the middles in order to get a really solid double block on (Keebaugh) and (Ficken) and whoever their outsides were. I think we flustered their setter a little bit.”