By RICK PETERSON
Even though it may result in a few losses along the way, Silver Lake volleyball coach Sarah Johnson has never shied away from a tough schedule, banking on the tough tests to make the Eagles a better team in the long run.
Silver Lake, 28-11 on the season, suffered four of its 11 losses on the year in the big-school Seaman Invitational, but three of those four losses came against teams that are in the state tournament (Seaman and Spring HIll in 5A, Bishop MIege in 4A) and the fourth defeat came against 5A Bishop Carroll, which went 26-11 and lost to the top seed in 5A.
The Eagles also beat 6A state qualifier Manhattan in a quad while losing to Seaman and 5A Shawnee Heights.
And, as has been the case in the past, the earlier tests have paid off for the perennial state contender in crunch time, with nine-time state champion Silver Lake back in the Class 3A state field Friday and Saturday at Hutchinson after a three-year absence.
"I feel that losing to great teams during the season only puts us at an advantage when we get to postseason,'' Johnson said. "My girls know how to be in tough/tight situations and make adjustments accordingly. For as long as I've been here, these Silver Lake female athletes crave that tough competition.
"Because we see that caliber of teams, we're not in shock come postseason. One amazing kill from a stud athlete on the other side of the net won't get us rattled, but it will push us to learn and adapt.''
Silver Lake garnered its latest state berth by wading through a tough St. Marys sub-state with a senior-led team that includes a group of athletes who have been successful in multi-sports for the Eagles.
The No. 2 seed in sub-state, Silver Lake opened with a 20-25, 25-4, 25-13 win over Sabetha and took a 25-23, 28-26 win over Royal Valley in the semifinals before outlasting top seed Rossville in the championship match, 25-16, 21-25, 26-24.
Seniors McKinley Kruger, Ava Rottinghaus, Kaibryn Kruger, Sarah Wehrli and Makenzie McDaniel have set the tone for the Eagles while several underclassmen have also turned in big years for Silver Lake.
"These girls know what it takes to get to that next level,'' Johnson said. "This team, and especially this group of seniors, have some serious grit. They have a strong desire to compete and be successful in all aspects of their lives. And they have worked really hard this year in trusting one another, so that it's never on any one person's shoulders.''
Silver Lake is the No. 6 seed in the 3A state tournament heading into Friday's pool play matches.
The Eagles will open their state bid in Pool II at 8:30 a.m. Friday against No. 3 seed Cheney (35-4) and will also face No. 2 Neodesha (36-3) at 11:30 a.m. and No. 7 seed Riverton (25-10) in pool play.
On the other side of the bracket are top seed Beloit (37-2), No. 4 Heritage Christian (34-4), No. 5 Smoky Valley (29-11) and No. 8 seed Goodland (23-15).
The top two teams in both pools will advance to Saturday's 9 a.m. semifinals, followed by the championship and third-place matches.
"We're not taking any team lightly,'' Johnson said. "We've been in situations before where we went 2-1 on the first day of state and got sent home. We've also been on the other side of that situation. With the first day of state volleyball being pool play, you just got to come out and want to win them all.''
CLASS 3A STATE VOLLEYBALL
At Sports Arena, Hutchinson
FRIDAY POOL PLAY
Pool I (Court A)
8:30 a.m. -- Heritage Christian (4: 34-4) vs. Smoky Valley (5: 29-11)
9:30 -- Beloit (1: 37-2) vs. Goodland (8: 23-15).
10:30 -- Heritage Christian vs. Goodland.
11:30 -- Beloit vs. Smoky Valley.
12:30 p.m. -- Smoky Valley vs. Goodland.
1:30 -- Beloit vs. Heritage Christian.
Pool II (Court B)
8:30 a.m. -- Cheney (3: 35-4) vs. Silver Lake (6: 28-11).
9:30 -- Neodesha (2: 36-3) vs. Riverton (7: 25-10).
10:30 -- Cheney vs. Riverton.
11:30 -- Neodesha vs. Silver Lake
12:30 p.m. -- Silver Lake vs. Riverton
1:30 -- Neodesha vs. Cheney.
9 a.m. -- Semifinals
(Consolation and championship matches will begin 25 minutes after last semifinal has concluded)