What had been a tough volleyball season — at least by Omaha Marian standards — all came together at the Class A state tournament.
Senior setter Sydney O'Shaughnessy was a big reason why.
The University of Nebraska at Omaha recruit was the stabilizing force of a young team that captured the school's fifth state championship. The Crusaders dug deep in the final, avenging two earlier losses against Millard West to defeat the Wildcats in five tension-filled sets and take home the crown.
"Sydney is a fierce competitor,'' Marian coach Rochelle Rohlfs said. "We had so many young hitters this year, but she was able to make the important adjustments that allowed us to reach our goal.''
The 5-foot-9 O'Shaughnessy is the honorary captain of the All-Nebraska volleyball team. She is joined on the first team by Marysa Wilkinson of Lincoln Southwest, Olivia Boender of Waverly, Alexis Anderson of Millard West, Morgan Nikkila of Hastings St. Cecilia, Sydney Townsend of Lincoln Pius X and Morgan Stute of Kearney Catholic.
Second-team selections are Megan Wickey of Omaha Concordia, Tiani Reeves of Gothenburg, Carlie Bauer of Minden, Kendall Schroer of Ogallala, Toni Tupper of Lincoln Northeast, Shayla Conner of Kearney Catholic and Brittany Witt of Marian.
Members of the third team are Jordan Lempka of Sterling, Kaylee Jensen of Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family, Kasey Hohlen of Norris, Erin Sorahan of Grand Island Northwest, Payton Chohon of Columbus Scotus, Ali Rowse of Minden and Jill Bax of Lincoln Southwest.
Selections for the All-Nebraska and All-Class teams are based on observations by World-Herald staff writers and nominations by coaches.
O'Shaughnessy dished out 1,164 assists and had 134 kills for the Crusaders, who will return 10 of their 14 players next season. Rohlfs said the senior setter was instrumental in working with the younger players and helping to get the most out of them.
"It was pretty obvious that Sydney helped build their confidence,'' the coach said.
At the state tournament, O'Shaughnessy helped guide an inspired Crusaders squad. Marian topped Lincoln Southwest in the first round and Lincoln Southeast in the semifinals before rallying from an 0-2 deficit to defeat Millard West for the title.
Rohlfs said she is confident the setter will go on to make a contribution at UNO.
"I think she'll be an impact player there,'' Rohlfs said. "There's no doubt in my mind about that.''
The 6-foot Creighton recruit had 504 kills and led the Silver Hawks back to the state tourney for the 10th time.
Wilkinson, who also had 42 blocks and 27 aces, was tough to stop at the net. The outside hitter had one of her best matches against Lincoln Pius X early in the season, pounding 30 kills in a losing effort.
"She's a wonderful person, on and off the gym floor,'' Southwest coach Mary Schropfer said. "She has grown so much as a leader, especially as a senior this year.''
Wilkinson was a middle hitter in her first three varsity seasons but moved to the outside this year.
"We wanted to get the ball to her more,'' Schropfer said. "She had 300 some kills last year and went over 500 this year, so I think that strategy really paid off for us.''
The versatile Wilkinson is a three-sport athlete, also competing in basketball and track.
"You don't see that a lot from the top volleyball players, because they often focus on just one sport,'' Schropfer said. "Marysa has just been an awesome player to coach, and I'm really going to miss her next year.''
One of the hardest hitters in the state, the 6-foot-2 Nebraska recruit had 497 kills for Waverly.
But Vikings coach Terri Neujahr said Boender's ability to diversify her game helped elevate her to new heights as a senior.
"She always possessed a lot of power in her arm,'' the coach said. "But she was even harder to stop this season because of the different ways she attacked defenses.''
Neujahr said Boender, who had 26 kills in the Vikings' one state tourney match, has had a volleyball instinct for several years.
"She was a sixth-grader at our camp and I was standing behind her,'' the coach said. "I could hear her yelling where the hitter was going to hit the ball.''
Neujahr added that Boender's ability to diversify her game should help her career as a Husker.
"Olivia has learned that she doesn't have to crash the ball every time,'' she said. "She's evolved mentally into a very tough player.''
A 5-11 middle blocker, Anderson was part of a Millard West squad that put together the best season in school history.
The senior led the Wildcats with 316 kills as Millard West finished 36-3. Coach Erin Byrd's squad reached the state final for the first time, losing in five sets to Marian.
"We had a really balanced offense this season,'' Byrd said. "But Alexis was our go-to player. She put the ball right where she wanted it.''
That was evidenced at the state tournament as Anderson had 42 kills in the three matches. She had 20 in the final against the Crusaders.
Byrd said Anderson also brought an intensity that energized the entire squad.
"She never took a play off,'' the coach said. "Offensively or defensively, she worked very hard.''
Byrd added that it's players such as Anderson who have helped elevate the program to new heights.
"Players like Alexis have a passion and that's something that just can't be taught,'' she said. "This team allowed our program to make another positive step forward.''
The 5-10 senior was a driving force for the Hawkettes, who captured the Class C-2 crown for the first time in 23 years.
Nikkila was important on both offense and defense, finishing with 459 kills and more than 350 digs. She played a key role at the state tournament, pounding 77 kills in three matches as St. Cecilia won the title for longtime coach Alan VanCura.
"Morgan was a tremendous leader for us,'' VanCura said. "In the big matches, she stepped it up to another level.''
VanCura said Nikkila had "destroyed'' most of the hitting records at the school. She finished with more than 1,200 kills, easily outdistancing the previous mark of 960.
"Morgan played middle for us her freshman year, but we moved her to the outside to get her the ball more,'' the coach said. "She proved to be dominating at that position the rest of her career.''
VanCura said it will be difficult seeing his star player move on next season.
"What she's accomplished in four years has been something,'' he said.
It was an interesting season for Townsend, the lone returning All-Nebraska first-teamer. The Nebraska libero recruit started the season as an outside hitter for the Thunderbolts but moved back to her more familiar libero role later in the season.
"The best thing about Sydney is that she always was willing to do what was best for the team,'' coach Jake Moore said.
Small for a hitter at 5-8, Townsend still had 229 kills this season. But when the Class B Thunderbolts were struggling at midseason, Moore decided to move Townsend back to libero.
"She made the switch to hitter effortlessly, but I think you could tell that she was back in her comfort zone as a libero,'' Moore said. "She's a very versatile player and we wouldn't have made that switch at the start of the season if we didn't think she could handle it.''
Townsend led the team with more than 526 digs. She also was second on the team in assists (71) and aces (41).
She was a big reason why the Thunderbolts reached the state tourney for the 24th time. Pius went to state as the top seed but was upset in the first round.
"The season didn't end the way we had hoped,'' Moore said. "But that doesn't take away from what Sydney was able to accomplish.''
She's never the tallest volleyball player on the floor, but the 5-6 libero certainly knows what to do out there.
Stute had 423 digs as a key player for the Stars, who repeated as Class C-1 champions. The junior also had 116 kills, 56 aces and 55 assists.
"Morgan has been playing since a very young age and understands the game well,'' coach Kris Conner said. "She does a great job of reading the hitters and communicating on defense.''
Stute was part of a squad that got on a late-season roll, winning 10 in a row entering the state tournament. The sixth-seeded Stars managed to defend their C-1 crown by defeating third-seeded Chadron, second-seeded Ogallala and fourth-seeded Minden.
"Morgan was a solid defensive player, but she also did a nice job offensively,'' Conner said. "For a libero to have more than 100 kills shows she knows how to swing at the ball.''
But Stute's defense is what placed her on the first team.
"She's really quick so she was able to cover the corners of the court,'' Conner said. "She's got great perception and a real love for the game.''
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All-Nebraska second, third teams
ALL-NEBRASKA SECOND TEAM
Megan Wickey, Omaha Concordia, Hitter, 6-2, Jr: The Ohio State recruit finished the season with 390 kills, an average of 5.8 per set.
Tiani Reeves, Gothenburg, Hitter, 6-1, Jr: The Swedes’ dynamic hitter had 368 kills, 247 digs, 50 blocks and 45 aces.
Carlie Bauer, Minden, Hitter, 5-10, Sr: She had 396 kills, 281 digs, 37 aces and 22 blocks for the Whippets, who were the Class C-1 runners-up.
Kendall Schroer, Ogallala, Hitter, 6-0, Jr: She finished with 348 kills and 64 blocks for the Indians, who went 33-7 this season.
Toni Tupper, Lincoln Northeast, Hitter, 6-3, Sr: The Creighton recruit led Class A with 551 kills, an average of 5.2 per set.
Shayla Conner, Kearney Catholic, Setter, 5-7, Sr: She had 846 assists, 151 kills and 37 blocks for the Stars, who repeated as C-1 champs.
Brittany Witt, Omaha Marian, Libero, 5-7, So: She had 647 digs (5.52 per set average) to help the Crusaders capture the Class A title.
ALL-NEBRASKA THIRD TEAM
Jordan Lempka, Sterling, Hitter, 6-2, Sr: She finished with 645 kills — a Class D-2 record — for the 27-8 Jets.
Kaylee Jensen, Humphrey/Lindsay HF, Hitter, 6-4, Sr: The imposing hitter had 440 kills and 121 blocks for the 30-3 Bulldogs.
Kasey Hohlen, Norris, Hitter, 6-1, Sr: She finished with 420 kills and was a key performer for the Class B champion Titans.
Erin Sorahan, Grand Island Northwest, Hitter, 5-6, Sr: Despite her size, she finished with 376 kills for the 38-1 Vikings.
Payton Chohon, Columbus Scotus, Hitter, 5-10, Sr: The three-year starter had 373 kills and 242 digs for the Class C-1 Shamrocks.
Ali Rowse, Minden, Setter, 5-6, Jr: She finished the season with 849 assists, 255 digs and 65 kills for the C-1 runner-up.
Jill Bax, Lincoln Southwest, Libero, 5-5, Sr: She led Class A with 659 digs — an average of 6.5 per set — for the 25-9 Silver Hawks.