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FLYING HIGH

No. 15 Wildcats off to another strong start

Photo by Rick Thompson Senior Jori Hajek jumps to hit the ball over the net for undefeated Humboldt during a home meet recently.

HUMBOLDT — When a team has high expectations, coming up short often becomes the motivation to overcome an obstacle.

The 15th-ranked (Class 3A) Humboldt volleyball squad has been on the verge of reaching the state tournament in each of the past five seasons, losing in the regional finals all five times. Only an eventual state finalist have been in the Wildcats’ way each and every time.

Given that, Humboldt has adopted an “Unfinished Business” moniker for 2020.

“It is a huge motivation for this group,” said sixth-year head coach Justin McDaniel. “It seems like we have had tough draws in the postseason a lot, but we keep coming back.

“Every season, I have them write down their goals. This time around, we didn’t do that. They know what they’re striving for…they know what their goal is.”

With eight seniors leading the way, the Wildcats have set themselves up for another run at reaching the state tournament for the first time in school history. This group, which was also coached by McDaniel from third through eighth grade before reaching the high school level, won four AAU state titles.

“They have mostly been together since elementary school in multiple sports,” McDaniel said. “It’s nice to know what to expect when they get on the court. (The chemistry and cohesion) is a huge advantage when they are out there playing with each other.”

McDaniel took over the Wildcat program during the 2014 campaign. Humboldt won the North Central Conference title three straight years from 2014 through 2016, and has been crowned the NCC winner in four of the last six seasons, also including 2018.

“I think its been rough not going (to state) but being so close,” said senior Kendal Clark. “We have been such a strong team that has been together for (nearly a decade). We are a very scrappy group that plays great defense, and we have consistent hitters all around.

“I just hope we have a (full) season to make it all work.”

Success continues to follow these Wildcats. Humboldt has already experienced state-level success in softball, track and wrestling.

“We have some great athletes,” McDaniel said. “A lot of these girls (in volleyball program) compete in three or four sports.

“This group of seniors has shown great leadership in the gym and the locker room.”

The 2021 graduating class has a combined record of 102-19 on the volleyball court as of this week, and the Wildcats are 136-21 the last five seasons. Clark, Jori Hajek, Lily Groat, Kailee Dettmann, Emily Zaugg, Deni McDaniel, Kaylee Shaner, and Jayda Hoefer have all provided different forms of talent and leadership through the years.

Humboldt is off to a 16-0 start, losing only four sets during the stretch so far.

“We’ve been really lucky with this group of girls being willing to work and continue to put in time during the offseason,” McDaniel said. “These girls love to play volleyball.”

The Wildcats didn’t drop a game until 10 matches into the season versus Ballard. They won a tournament title on their home court, as well as last weekend in Spencer.

Hajek, who earned all-state honorable mention status the past three seasons and is a three-time NCC first team member, is the tied for the state lead in serve efficiency at 100 percent. Hajek is a perfect 170-for-170 from the service line.

“This is such a close group,” Hajek said. “We have been playing together since we were in third grade, and we have a bond that is unimaginable. We get along so well and have each other’s back in everything that we do.

“All of us being multi-sport athletes means we also have a lot of versatility (both physically and with) our mindset. We can be put in all different positions and it will all work out.

“Our underclassmen put in so much hard work, too, and make us better in every practice.”

Hajek also leads the Wildcats with 115 kills and 151 digs. Clark has 98 kills and Zaugg has 20.

Dig leaders are McDaniel (135), Clark (124) and Groat (100). Zaugg leads the way in blocks (19).

McDaniel’s daughter, Deni, a first team all-conference pick a year ago, is second in 3A and seventh in the state with 327 assists.

The Wildcats last won the NCC crown in 2018, as Clarion-Goldfield/Dows — a state semifinalist last season — was the 2019 champion. The Wildcats will travel to Clarion to face the third-ranked Cowgirls on Oct. 15.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, athletes are just grateful to be on the court.

“Being so close to state for the past five years, I know my class especially wanted to overcome that hump we have had troubles with in the past,” Hajek said. “If anything, we have more desire and fire to want to overcome that last step and make this crazy year all worthwhile.

This team has dreamed about being the first Humboldt team at state. The fact that we get to play the game we love this year means everything to us. So why not make it last as long as possible?”

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