A bitter after taste fueled the Audubon volleyball team on their march to the school’s first-ever state tournament berth.
Following their loss to Grand View Christian (3-1) last year’s regional final, the very same team they battled Tuesday in another regional final, the Wheelers faced an offseason reality check.
Head coach Molly Lainge pushed her players to not only believe they could reach the state tournament, but to turn it into actual results.
That sense of belief, coupled with a few tactical alterations, did the trick as the Wheelers punched their first state tournament ticket Tuesday, Nov. 1 with a 3-2 come-from-behind victory over Grand View Christian in the 1A region five final.
“It’s a testament to the kids. Losing to Grand View Christian last year in the regional finals, they took it to heart. We were so close and didn’t quite get there,” Lainge said. “In the offseason, they put in the time, they put in the effort. This year, the mentality was night and day so much better.
There was an example of that tonight – down two-zero, our backs against the wall we still believed.”
The shift came as the Wheelers continued to gain momentum throughout the season, blowing past last year’s 16 wins midway through the fall. They cut their losses in half as well, and only dropped six games all year thanks to a rotational shake up.
“Last year, we talked a lot about mentality,” Lainge said. “They believed in it, but they didn’t quite get it. This year, we did it. We switched up our defense, switched up our defense. We moved Sydney (Obermeier) to the outside and Taylor (Nielsen) to libero and things just clicked.”
Those changes proved vital as Nielsen was fourth in the state in digs entering Tuesday’s contest with 467 while Obermeier formed a lethal offensive combo with Kaitlin Schultes to power the Wheelers to ninth in the state in kills with 989.
Obermeier and Schultes both attribute this year’s historical achievement to the close-knit chemistry of the team. The two have been best friends for as long as they can remember and the other girls on the team have come together as well.
“We’ve spent so much time together,” Obermeier. “Our team chemistry is amazing and I think one of the big reasons for our success. We know each other so well.”
Especially the leaders of the team, Schultes, Olsen, Obermeier, and Nielsen, they share a unique bond.
“The seniors, we are all really close,” Schultes said. “We all worked our butts off (to get here). ”
Battling Grand View Christian, not only for a state berth but also for revenge, proved to be an important motivator Tuesday.
“It (gave) us a little more drive, a little more push to get the win (knowing they beat us last year),” Claire Olsen said. “Going into the game knowing they are a great team but we had seen them before so we knew, kind of, what to expect. It was a great feeling to win.”
The Wheelers’ confidence started to blossom during last fall’s regional final run.
“We went on a bit of a winning streak and it just felt real. Like ‘whoa, we can do this,’” Olsen said. “When we lost, it felt like we could do it. We were this close.”
The Wheelers also credit some of their success to their fellow classmates who cheer them on boisterously at each home game. They also made the trek east to Perry on Tuesday.
“They are awesome, they make the gym atmosphere so great,” Nielsen said.
The students are so encouraging that they almost become the seventh player out on the court, so to speak.
“If we didn’t have them, I don’t think we’d play to the best of our ability,” Olsen said. “I know within ourselves we could, but just having them there, that support, they make it electrifying in there.”
The gravity of Audubon’s 2016 state tourney run certainly wasn’t lost on the head coach. She was overcome with emotion Tuesday night in Perry.
“It’s a pretty great feeling,” Lainge said. “I’ve been married for three years, we just had our first child and now this. It has to be one of the top three feelings of my life.”
The seventh-seeded Wheelers take on No. 2 seed Springville (28-7) at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Nov. 9 in the school’s first-ever state tournament in a Class 1A quarterfinal. The winner advances to play either Hudson or Lawton-Bronson at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Wheelers have gotten this far, so why not?
“It kind of feels like a dream, almost,” Obermeier said. “We are excited to be there. Obviously, we are going to play how we know how to play, but just being there is going to be an amazing experience. Being with each other, something that we always remember.”