By Max Rothman
LENEXA, Kan. -- Nothing could trump the length and power of Papillion-La Vista South (Papillion, Neb.) on Wednesday night. But the defense of St. James (Lenexa, Kan.) definitely came close.
“We haven’t had anything like that all season,” Papillion senior Rachel Nelson said after the Titans survived the 22-25, 25-23, 17-25, 26-24, 15-12 thriller.
The Titans, the No. 1 team in the POWERADE FAB 50 national rankings, stayed undefeated at 23-0, and extended their winning streak to 64. They handed the Thunder, the No. 4 team in the nation, their first loss of the season.
Twins sisters Kadie and Amber Rolfzen, both 6-foot-3, used their length to create an advantage at the net and finished with a combined 42 kills. They never wasted a touch and struck the ball with a sharp and speedy trajectory toward the opposition’s hardwood. St. James had the defense, energy and crowd on its side, but not the Rolfzens.
“We weren’t going to match up with them defensively,” Papillion coach Gwen Egbert said. “We were digging some balls, but not like they were.”
St. James also had a raucous student section on its side, known as “Thunder Nation.” A group of kids dedicated to volume wore headbands and strips of paint under their eyes. They chanted and danced to the school band’s covers of “This Is How We Do” and “Apache.” The section kept the same level of energy for all five sets and created a feisty atmosphere to match the skilled play of the two elite teams.
“It’s kind of intimidating at first,” Nelson said. “But we love this kind of atmosphere. We love big games like this.”
Wednesday’s game marked the first time that two nationally ranked teams played in the gym at St. James. It also provided both teams with a valuable test to develop and correct mistakes for the future.
“This is a great opportunity to learn, get better and grow as a team,” Egbert said.
St. James was prepared for the size differential going into the contest and tried to combat it with intelligent passing and fewer risks. The Thunder’s style often depended on going with the safer play and relying on Papillion to make a mistake.
“We’re used to being smaller than the other team, so it didn’t really intimidate us,” St. James senior Kayla Guyot said.
Papillion junior Kelly Hunter finished with 25 assists and, while tense at first like the rest of her team, she settled into a groove in the second set. The Titans’ passing was downright sloppy in the first set, but Amber Rolfzen said her team got it together as the match moved along.
“We just have to stay calm when they dig us, because we’re not used to it,” she said.
St. James’ ability to dig resulted in extended rallies that Papillion usually doesn’t face. In most games, the kills come from Papillion’s first strike.
“We have people who dig us, but they go after every ball,” Amber Rolfzen said of St. James.
But despite all the dives to the floor and amazing digs, St. James couldn’t outlast Papillion’s talent.
“They’re pretty scrappy, too,” Guyot said.