By RICK PETERSON
It's been an uncharcteristic 2023 season for the proud Washburn Rural volleyball program, with the Junior Blues dropping 10 matches, their most since 2016 season, after losing a total of three matches over the previous two seasons combined.
But Kevin Bordewiick's Junior Blues team is back in familiar territory, headed to the Class 6A state tournament, after a dominant performance in Saturday's sub-state tourney at Rural.
Washburn Rural topped Derby 25-9, 25-15 in the sub-state final and has now earned 25 state berths in 29 seasons under Bordewick with eight state championships, including the 2022 crown.
"I think we've worked all season for this,'' Rural senior standout Jada Ingram said. "From the start of the season to now you can definitely see how much we've improved and I think we have a really special group. A lot of people doubt us, but I think we're going to make a great run at state.''
The Junior Blues, now 28-10, will open their '23 state bid at 3:30 p.m. Friday at the Tony's Pizza Events Center in Salina and are the No. 5 seed in the eight-team field.
Washburn Rural suffered heavy graduation losses from last season's 45-1 team, including Kentucky freshman Brooklyn DeLeye, and the the Junior Blues played almost a full month at the start of the year without senior Zoe Canfield while she recovered from ACL surgery.
That makes Rural's latest trip to state even sweeter.
"This is everything that any athlete plays for, works so hard for, and I'm so glad we're back in this position again,'' Canfield said.
"With Zoe out that's a four-year starter, an All-Stater and just the consistency and the leadership,'' Bordewick said. "But we fought and scrapped and we were roughly around .500 and it was a brutal early season for us. We played nothing but ranked teams for the most part and they learned a lot about themselves, too.
"We kept emphasizing that the state championship's not the first or second week. It's a process and you've got to understand and go through the process every single day to come out here and get ready ''
After dispatching fellow Centennial League member Junction City in the semifinals, 25-10, 25-12, Rural advanced to the sub-state final to meet Derby, which advanced with a 25-21, 25-16 win over Wichita Heights.
Washburn Rural took an 18-6 first-set lead over the Panthers on a kill from junior Layla Collins and made the score 20-6 on a kill from Ingram and 22-6 on another Ingram kill before closing out the 16-point victory.
Derby, which finished its 13-23, jumped out to a 2-0 advantage in the second set and led 5-2 before ties at 5 and 6.
Washburn Rural began to pull away at that point, however, opening up a 12-8 lead on a kill from senior Ava Bruno and going in front 20-12 after a 5-0 run, including a pair of service aces from senior Macey Jones.
The Junior Blues went on to close out the victory, getting a block from Canfield and senior Madison Stout and a kill from Ingram.
Washburn Rural will take on No. 4 seed Blue Valley West (29-9) at 3:30 p.m. Friday in its opening Pool I match and the Junior Blues will also face top seed Blue Valley North (34-3) at 6:30 p.m. and No. 8 Maize (19-18) at 7:30.
The top two finishers in Pool I will advance to 1 p.m. semifinals on Saturday, followed by the championship and third-place matches.
No. 2 seed Mill Valley (32-5), No. 3 Olathe Northwest (31-5), No. 6 Garden City (25-13) and No. 7 Manhattan (23-14) are on the other side of the 6A bracket.
Semifinals -- Washburn Rural def. Junction City, 25-10, 25-12; Derby def. Wichita Heights, 25-21, 25-16.
Championship -- Washburn Rural def. Derby, 25-9, 25-15.