From the moment volleyball practice started in the middle of August the Carroll volleyball team started to form a bond with each other.
It helped that many of the players that were expected to be on varsity had already spent the spring and summer together playing other sports for Carroll High. Still, it was a new year, and new expectations were forming for the young team.
Of course, as with any new year, there were still things to work out. The Tigers entered the season with a new lineup, and new positions to fill out. Making things just a little harder were the numbers that the Carroll would be working with on the year.
Although volleyball is a very healthy sport in Carroll, with over 40 girls showing up to play, only 12 players were slated for the varsity team. Some class 4A programs have as many as 20 or 25 girls that suit up on the varsity team.
Carroll, though chose to defy expectations and stick with their dozen varsity players.
The thin numbers didn’t hurt the Tigers as they started their season.
Growing pains were experienced through the first couple weeks of the season as Carroll, and their team worked through early season tournaments. They built confidence with an early season non-conference win over South Central Calhoun. They then added their first Raccoon River Conference win, a sweep over Boone on Sept. 10.
A week later their second RRC win came, as they survived a 3-2 match over ADM. Conference wins three and four came with 3-1 victories over Carlisle and Ballard. By the first of October the Tigers were up to five conference wins after a sweep against Perry.
Five down, two to go.
The next two matches would try the Tigers, but their small numbers would also strengthen them.
“At practice we just play with the 12 of us,” said Kelli Schulz, the head coach of Carroll. “We spend a lot of time together. We are a family, and I feel like the girls are comfortable with each other.”
One way the family feel has helped the Tigers this year is by allowing the girls to dig out of early holes. In their last two conference matches the Tigers had to start in a hole after the other team won the first set. Instead of breaking apart after trying first sets, the Tigers seemed to come together.
“I think sometimes we just want to give the other team a chance, and make it fun for our fans,” said senior Rylee Ludwig with a laugh following Tuesday’s conference win over Winterset. “The energy always seems to change with the second set. We realize that we have to go now, rather than sit back and watch what happens.”
The way the Tigers are able to come together is by being honest with each other, and working, like a family, on the court.
“(Being like a family on the court) helps because sometimes we need to be tougher on each other, and the girls won’t respond unless they are comfortable with each other,” Schulz said. “No one takes the criticism personally, we take responsibility and work together to improve.”
Especially against Bondurant-Farrar, two matches which the Tigers needed to win in order to claim the Raccoon River title, the Tigers needed to work together and work on what went against them, leading to first set losses.
In both matches it was a mixture of energy, and the natural talent that the girls have that let the Tigers work together to win the second set, and tie the match.
“Our talent really takes us through the match, but if our energy gets down then we’re not going to play as good as we can,” Ludwig said. “So we need to pick up the energy and get ourselves hyped up to get the momentum, that’s what really brings us through all five sets.”
In their last two conference matches of the regular season the Tigers were challenged with five set matches. Again, they didn’t panic. Instead they buckled down and played. Much like a family.
During volleyball rotations between players is as much a part of the game, as getting a quick spike, or a block. Even with the smaller number of players, Carroll’s lineup knew they could trust each other.
“A small team makes us family,” Ludwig said. “We know when we have teammates coming off the bench that they can fill in for us. Us being out there together we get used to playing together.”
The family aspect showed the last two regular season games. Against Bondurant-Farrar the Tigers survived a late charge by the Bluejays, and held on for a 15-10 victory. With that win Carroll was assured at least a share of the title.
But winning a conference title, by themselves had been the goal since that first practice. Carroll entered the fifth set this Tuesday focused on getting the win, and not sharing the RRC title with anyone else.
“Once we won the fourth set we just wanted to keep the energy up, we let Winterset get a run, which we knew they would because they are a great team, but our girls kept fighting, and played to win,” Schulz said. “We felt in control.”
Carroll scored nine of the first 12 points against Winterset in the fifth set, but Winterset would come back, and eventually close the score 13-10 in Carroll’s favor. The Tigers dug deep, and fought off the attack, eventually outlasting Winterset 15-11 in the final set.
That gave them their first RRC title outright since the 2015 season.
“This was such a goal for the girls coming into the year,” Schulz said.
They knew they didn’t have the biggest varsity team, but all season the Tigers, especially the seniors on the team, Ludwig, Emma Perkins and Rachel White, knew they wanted a conference championship. So they worked as hard as they could for it.
“Unreal,” Ludwig said about winning the conference. “Going into the season we didn’t know what we’d really have because we were basically putting together a whole new team. It really means a lot to us to pull it together, especially the seniors.”
Carroll will still play in a tournament this weekend, their last chance to fine-tune their game before the start of regional playoffs. Because of the family feel, and success of Carroll, the Tigers earned a first-round bye in regional play.
“This team meshes together so well,” Schulz said. “This team just clicks. We’ve all had the same goals, and the we is greater than the me is still very much alive on this team.”
From the start of the season the Tigers have had a simple slogan, ‘we is greater than me.’ That is alive and well on the Tiger team, who feels like a 12-member family. It’s also something that could help Carroll as they enter regional play.
They’ve survived two heart-stopping RRC matches to end the regular season. They have a chemistry that can hardly be shaken. Although Carroll could have to meet the No. 1 ranked Sergeant Bluff-Luton team in regional play, Carroll isn’t scared. Especially because of how they’ve been playing the last two weeks, and all year.
“The girls know that we were in high stress situations,” Schulz said. “We want to keep playing at our best level. Knowing that we can overcome adversity and be challenged. It’s good. We know how to respond to those situations. We’re a resilient team.”