By CONOR NICHOLL
Tribune-Greeley County coach Jordan Stewart took over for her alma mater seven years ago. GC, one of four Kansas counties in Mountain time zone, had very limited volleyball success. Greeley County has long been a cross country power with 15 state titles in that sport.
Stewart went to Fort Hays for nursing and married her high school sweetheart. The couple has three daughters. Jadence, the oldest, is a freshman. Jordan wanted her daughters and peers to become excited for volleyball at Greeley County.
“I started pretty much from nothing,” she said.
In her first three years, GC volleyball won a combined three matches. Four falls ago, the Jackrabbits elevated to double figure victories. In the fifth and sixth year, Greeley County hit the .500 mark. In 2021, the Jackrabbits finished 21-14, believed to be the first time GC had ever eclipsed 20 victories.
This fall, Greeley County has just seven players; six are required for a team. The roster has three freshmen: 5-foot-9 Jadence, Maggie Votruba, and Hailey Nolan. The sophomores are Taittum Bain and Jadyn Mangan. Iliany Yanez and Ana Trejo are the juniors. The team has no seniors.
Jadence, who has played high-level club in Garden City, is the team captain. Brecken Mangan has served as the assistant the last six years. Jadence grew up practicing with and against her mom’s high school team. She has a goal to play Division I volleyball.
In practice, Greeley County runs a lot of drills. For scrimmages, the coaches, and Stewart’s seventh grade daughter, Jeryn, practice live against the high schoolers. Local alumni join once or twice a week.
“It’s very difficult,” Stewart said.
Starting last December, the Stewarts drove to Garden City, a 166-mile round trip, once a week for club volleyball. They played tournaments in Wichita, Topeka, Lawrence and Kansas City.
Greeley County was unranked to open the fall, though quickly moved into the Class 1A, Division II rankings by the Kansas Volleyball Association. As of Wednesday, the Jackrabbits were 14-5 and ranked sixth in the classification.
It’s the first time GC has ever been ranked, a moment that made coach Stewart a little emotional.
“They have put in a lot of time over the summer, and they all kind of love playing volleyball and have a passion for it,” Stewart said. “And they have just been really working hard, and trusting each other, and just being able to finish some pretty close games. So far, I have been super impressed with them as well. Obviously, only having one sub is a scary issue to have, but they get out there and they battle, and they fight really hard, so I am really proud of them.”
Greeley County and Blue Valley Southwest: Having enough players and keeping its players
Four hundred and forty-one miles away on I-70 East is Blue Valley Southwest, a 5A program in the Eastern Kansas League. Greeley County has 59 students, Southwest has 1,053.
In late summer, Austin Isham took over a Timberwolves program basically sight unseen.
“I had no idea who I had,” he said.
Southwest was 17-47 the last two falls and stands at 13-9 entering Wednesday.
“I don’t people if really do know who we are yet,” he said.
Isham believes the record can be even better; BVSW has lost several close matches.
“We just don’t have the tradition yet of a school that knows how to win, so when that comes around for these girls,” he said. “And I am hoping it comes this season that we recognize ourselves as winners, and recognize ourselves as a volleyball school that we can squeeze those wins out, and people can recognize us for who we are eventually.”
Throughout the fall, SIK has noted several major turnarounds in a sport generally dominated by traditional teams, including several private schools, longtime public school powers like Hanover, Central Plains, Smith Center and Andale. In 6A, a different Blue Valley school has won the title the last three seasons.
Olathe West went through an injury-plagued 14-20 record last season and stands at 20-3. Macksville improved from 17-16 to 16-3. St. Marys jumped from 9-26 to 12-8. All three programs have veteran coaches. Marmaton Valley was 9-11 and currently 14-8. Norton is 13-8 after 14-18 in ’21. Quinter was 14-52 the last two seasons and stands at 8-10.
Perhaps no program has enjoyed a bigger turnaround than Greeley County and Blue Valley Southwest. The teams have several commonalities, including a freshman as its best hitter.
Both coaches are Rule 10s. They have quickly used the same word – trust – in describing a key part of the change. Stewart mentioned trust multiple times.
“It’s just really been about getting the kids to trust me,” Stewart said. “And to trust the process and to change the culture, and when I took over, that’s really what I wanted to do. I wanted to try to create a strong volleyball program for Tribune.”
For Greeley County, it’s simply having enough players. For Blue Valley Southwest, it’s keeping its players away from the private schools.
Neither program has ever made the state tournament.
“We want to establish the trust so they can come to Southwest,” Isham said. “If we keep our own girls, we can hang with the rest of the EKL. We just can’t be giving our best players to the rest of the EKL, so that’s my initiative.”
“If you could make a libero in a lab, she would be it”
Isham graduated from Blue Valley and played men’s club with the Mavs, a well-known K.C. area program. He played men’s collegiate volleyball at Graceland (Ia.) University, where he notably ranked top-5 nationally in assists in 2005, per Daktronics stat archives.
Isham, a Rule 10 coach and physical therapist, coached some with college and club. Once he came back to Kansas City, he re-ignited the Mavs’ boys program, a system that “gave me so much.” He coached Mavs six seasons and won a 16-under USA national title in ’19.
With the program in a good position, Isham stepped aside. He took the Southwest job in late July. SW opened 0-5 this fall.
“I kind of stuck it to the seniors and held them responsible for the past,” Isham said. “And I said, ‘OK, if you want to be a part of this change, I am going to hold it to you guys to make sure this happens, and to a person, they have committed to it.”
This is the 13th season for the T-Wolves’ program. Southwest has captured more than 21 wins once. In 2018, the program peaked at 26-9 with Samantha Schnitta, who plays at Ole Miss.
Freshman Willow Weninger leads in hitting with 165 kills and a .259 attack percentage.
“I just loved how they bought in immediately,” Isham said.
Sophomore Hadley Porter was the top player at the Tonganoxie tournament last weekend and is the No. 1 libero in Kansas for the Class of 2025. She by far paces Southwest with 214 digs. She is ranked nationally.
“Hadley is a fiery, passionate volleyball player who just is like if you could make a libero in a lab, she would be it,” Isham said. “She is loud and vocal.”
Two seniors have committed to play in college, believed to be the first time that’s occurred in the same year for BVSW. Reese Bates, a utility player and excellent server, is headed to Division I Jacksonville State, currently 14-1. Ally Schmidt is going to Palm Beach Atlantic (Fla.).
“I never thought I would be coaching high school, I never thought I would be coaching girls, and having the time of my life, it’s been a blast,” Isham said. “I think these girls and these parents have made it extra good on me, because they want to have something consistent, they want to have something they can lean on, and so they have really helped me out a lot.”
Especially in the Kansas City area, players often transfer schools. Volleyball-wise, St. James Academy, St. Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Miege are all longtime powers. Isham, like Stewart, wants to build a program.
“I think I stumbled into some young talent, and I think our incoming eight grade class has a lot of talent, too,” Isham said. “So we are going in the right direction, and then the big thing that we are trying to do is establish trust, so girls don’t feel like they have to transfer to a private school to get a volleyball experience.”
Coach Stewart coaches basketball, too. She started working with her daughter, Mangan and Bain around third and fourth grade in basketball. GC’s junior high program consists of sixth, seventh and eighth grade.
“We usually have pretty big numbers,” Stewart said. “But then when girls get to high school, they compete with tennis and cross country and volleyball, so it’s pretty hard. The girls have lots of opportunity, but it is hard. It’s hard to get them to want to stick it out and stick with it unless they really, really love playing.”
Stewart really tried to push team unity and make volleyball fun. The current group really loves the sport and has been on the same page as Stewart to try and grow the program. Stewart said this is the first year GC has no cross country runners, girls or boys.
The overall numbers at Greeley County are down, with especially three classes. The freshmen class has 11 students. The junior class had 13, and the seniors 15. In the summer, the Jackrabbits did open gym three times a week. All the girls have jobs in the summer, which makes time for summer weights challenging.
“Those girls have really bought into me, and trusted me, too,” she said. “So I give a lot of credit to them.”
Greeley County had nine players, including three seniors, on the ’21 team. Coach Stewart expected to gain three freshmen. She also believed the Jackrabbits would have a ’22 team.
Then, around Christmas last year, one of the girls moved. Just before the season, a girl decided she was just going to work and not play sports. Then, another one elected to homeschool. Suddenly, GC had seven players.
Stewart didn’t know until early August that she would have seven.
“That was very kind of shocking,” coach Stewart said.
Stewart told the girls they had to be “mentally and physically tough.”
At the beginning of the season, Stewart asked the girls: What are our goals and what do you what the season to be? She tossed out some ideas. Greeley County adopted the team motto: “Outwork everyone.”
“Everybody is going to have to show up and put in the work and be focused and ready to go,” coach Stewart said. “And just be willing to face a lot of adversity, because I don’t know what’s going to come our way. But it is a great group of girls. I feel very lucky to have the seven that I do, because they do work really hard.”
Jadence has 165 kills and a .237 average. Mangan has delivered 134 kills. Bain had a negative hitting percentage in ’21 and has improved this fall. The coaches have worked on a strong mental game with her.
“She’s very athletic, and she works very, very hard,” coach Stewart said of Mangan. “Like when she comes to practice or in games that she is going to give it everything she has. She plays really well defensively, and I feel like her attacking ability is getting better, and she is a great leader. She is just a positive person on the floor.”
They have combined for 82 percent of Greeley County’s kills. Bain, Mangan and Trejo pace with 25, 24 and 22 aces, respectively.
The top-six players all have between 71 and 100 digs. Trejo leads on the back line. Trejo has consistently asked coach Stewart to work with her in the gym and hit extra balls her way.
“We are competing really well,” Stewart said. “But we are not the quality of team that’s going to blow teams out of the water. We are going to have to battle for every point in everything we get.”
Yanez has 337 assists and has set since her freshman year. Greeley County is 3-1 against Syracuse and 1-1 versus Golden Plains and Wallace County as it has moved into the state rankings.
“It’s been our dream to build a program, and it kind of feels like it’s there, and we have solidified it and kind of met our goal,” Stewart said. “And I just want the girls to stay focused, and to keep pushing, and to not let it get to them, but to know that we need to keep competing at a high level.”
“Outperforming blockers two and three years older”
Once Isham took the job, he watched a little bit of Southwest players in club nationals. But he really entered with fresh eyes.
“It’s probably harder for coaches that have a history with players and groups and they have to play favorites,” he said.
In tryouts and practice, Isham was impressed with the talent, even if the previous records didn’t show many wins.
Isham stressed the entire team has helped flip Blue Valley Southwest, a team that entered Wednesday on a seven-match winning streak. Last year’s squad had one senior. This year has six, particularly Bates, Jordan Elliot, and the 6-foot-1 Schmidt.
Bates has played setter, defensive specialist and outside hitter. Porter has 114 serving points, Bates 113. One week, Bates earned a team award for her serving. Last weekend, Bates switched back to setter. Bates is consistently BVSW’s server in the first rotation.
“I can’t appreciate her enough for what she has done,” Isham said.
Porter and sophomore setter/outside hitter Kaylee Tingey are generally the only consistent six rotation players. Freshman Taylor Stanley is at opposite as one of team’s top blockers and attackers. Schmidt is not a traditional middle and is going to play outside hitter in college. Elliot plays in the middle. Porter has all the skills: ball reading, technical skills, foot speed.
“Just intuition about the game that is probably beyond me in the sense that she does things that obviously I did not coach her to do,” Isham said. “And she can make the ball better in most situations. I would put her up against any libero in the state in any class, and she is only a sophomore.”
Weninger has played volleyball for six years. She is 5-foot-10 and can attack at 9-foot-4.
“She’s fun to be around, and as far as her skills, she is extremely long and powerful,” Isham said of Weninger. “And can do things with the ball that I am surprised freshmen can do on the right side. She finds spots, she is outperforming blockers that are two or three years older than her. She can work around them, and use them, and just do things with the ball that is far beyond her years. So she brings a lot of power, it’s fun to watch her get a good set and work the defense.”
Still, Isham believes the ceiling is higher for his team. In the season opener, Southwest outhit Spring Hill .205-.139 and scored more points, though lost the match in three sets. On Sept. 10, SW beat Topeka Seaman for the first time in school annals. Southwest outhit Spring Hill again and lost in three sets Sept. 15.
Five days later, Southwest was up a set and had a convincing second set lead against Blue Valley Northwest and fell. Since then, Southwest is 8-1, including a win against Bishop Miege. The T-Wolves were 1-12 all-time versus the Stags. On Wednesday, Southwest plays host to St. James (5-1, top-35 nationally via MaxPreps) and Blue Valley (17-5). Southwest is a combined 0-29 all-time against those squads.
Like Stewart on the opposite end of Kansas, Isham wants to establish the tradition and a winning mentality and keep clearing benchmarks.
“I am just surprised that our record isn’t even better what it is, given the talent we have,” Isham said.