After two years of traveling to the state volleyball tournament, St. Michael the Archangel Catholic has the routine down pat. The Guardians know when they’ll leave, where they’ll stay and what it’s like to play in Cape Girardeau’s Show Me Center.
But this five-hour trip to southeastern Missouri will be different. This St. Michael team is more experienced that the first two that went. And they’ve been bumped up to Class 3.
“The play’s probably going to be a little different, but what I like to keep my girls focused on is that they’re playing volleyball,” St. Michael coach Sheridan Zarda said. “And that doesn’t change. The rules for volleyball don’t change, the way we play doesn’t change, so I want them to just go and play volleyball.”
With seven seniors on the squad, that shouldn’t be hard to do. And after beating an undefeated Odessa squad and perennial power Pleasant Hill last weekend to reach the final four, the Guardians certainly feel they belong in the bigger class.
St. Michael (21-9-2) will join Windsor-Imperial, St. Francis Borgia and defending champion Logan-Rogersville in the Class 3 state tournament, which begins with pool play 4 p.m. Friday at the Show Me Center.
“We’ve never seen these teams before but I think we’re prepared,” St. Michael senior and team captain Abby Salanski said. “We played Class 3 and Class 4 teams throughout our whole entire season, so it’s not as frightening as it could be.”
Moving up did seem intimidating at first because St. Michael had fared so well in Class 2. The Guardians have been to state every year since the school opened, placing fourth in 2017 and third last season.
But this Guardian team has more depth and experience than those first two. Zarda spent her first season blending players from O’Hara, which closed when St. Michael opened, with girls from other schools. Those players have blended into the veteran seniors that lead the Guardians today.
Salanski, a 5-foot-8 outside hitter, has a team-best 192 kills and is the Guardians’ floor leader. Taylor Westoff, a 5-6 outsider hitter, is second in kills with 175. Emma Foley, the 5-2 libero, leads the defense with 316 digs. Brandi Simpson (5-10) and Alyssa Lakin (6-0) provide size in the middle, Mary Grace Tyler (5-7) serves as the setter and Colleen McNamara has 103 kills from the right side.
“That first year we were getting to know everyone still,” Zarda said. “And a lot of those girls that are now seniors were sophomores at that point in time. For them from year to year to continue getting to know one another, continuing to trust one another and getting to know each other’s tendencies, that’s huge.”
Added Westhoff: “We’ve been playing for three years now together and I think our bond has got really strong over the years. We just really know how to come together and play and we know our weaknesses and strengths. If someone’s down we know what we need to do to pick them back up.”
St. Michael had down times this season, including a stretch when concussions and other injuries kept several starters out of action. But when the postseason rolled around, the Guardians were healed and ready to roll.
Pembroke Hill did take St. Michael to three sets in last Wednesday’s Class 3 District 14 tournament final, but since then the Guardians have been untouchable. Playing in front of a loud and enthusiastic crowd in their home gym, St. Michael beat an Odessa team that came in with a 32-0-3 record 25-11, 25-17 in the sectional match. That set up a quarterfinal match with Pleasant Hill, a final four participant the last four seasons.
St. Michael rode a 14-0 run to a 25-6 rout in the first set, and earned its trip to state with a 25-17 win in the second.
“I’ve always given them the mindset that anybody can beat anybody on any given day,” Zarda said. “I told them I don’t care about record. We take care of what we can take care of and we play the best volleyball that we can play. And that day, it happened that we played the best volleyball that we can play.”
Zarda hopes that trend continues this weekend. Now that they know they can play with the best of a bigger class, the Guardians have more reason to feel comfortable with the state tournament routine.
“We have the experience,” Salanski said. “The majority of our team has been to state; we know what it is. We know what it takes to win a game at state and hopefully this year we’ll win state.”