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Super sophomore: Platte-Geddes’ Karly VanDerWerff is Mitchell Republic’s volleyball player of the year

Sophomore Karly VanDerWerff is the 2021 Mitchell Republic volleyball player of the year after helping lead the Platte-Geddes Black Panthers to a 34-5 record and a third-place finish in Class B.

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Platte-Geddes sophomore Karly VanDerWerff is the Mitchell Republic's 2021 volleyball player of the year. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

PLATTE — Karly VanDerWerff’s ascent to standout status and Platte-Geddes’ rise through the Class B volleyball ranks have followed a similar trajectory.

The Black Panthers improved their record in each of the last three years, completing one of the best seasons in school history in 2021, and their impassioned 5-foot-10 middle hitter is, quite literally, at the center of it.

Though just a sophomore, 2021 was VanDerWerff’s third season as the starting middle hitter for Platte-Geddes’ varsity team. She made the jump from playing junior high volleyball as a seventh-grader straight to starting on varsity as an eighth-grader and has steadily expanded her skill set and role since.

An exceptional sophomore campaign boosted Platte-Geddes to the top seed in Class B’s postseason, a third-place finish at the Black Panthers’ first state tournament since 2016 and a 34-5 final record.

“I didn’t really find it overwhelming,” VanDerWerff said. “I enjoyed [our team] being a source of pride for our town and our school.”

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Key offensive and defensive contributions in boosting Platte-Geddes to its highest-ever finish in Class B earned Karly VanDerWerff the Mitchell Republic's 2021 volleyball player of the year award.

VanDerWerff powered her way to team-best marks with 491 kills, a .345 hitting percentage, a 45% kill percentage, 506 digs and 69 total blocks — 20 of which were solo. Her 72 ace serves ranked third with a team-high 17.3% ace percentage among those with at least 300 serves. For her individual efforts, VanDerWerff earned Class B all-tournament and first-team all-state honors.

“I wasn’t sure who would get on the all-tournament team, because on our team we’re all really close in terms of skill,” VanDerWerff said. “I had no idea what to expect, and then all-state, I was really surprised by that, I think it’s so cool.”

VanDerWerff’s attacking arsenal was on full display during the state third-place match against Faulkton Area, in which VanDerWerff capped the campaign with one of her best individual performances. She posted 27 kills, 16 digs, four ace serves and one solo block, lifting the Black Panthers to a five-set victory.

“It’s telling that she’s such a great athlete and volleyball player and that she’s getting this recognition as a sophomore,” Platte-Geddes coach Melissa Johnson said. “There’s only greater things to come for her and our team. It’s just a little bit of a shock that as a sophomore this is where she’s at, and we have two more years with that talent.”

The Mitchell Republic volleyball player of the year is selected by the newspaper's sports staff via a point-based voting system that awards five points to the top player, four points to the second player on the ballot and so on. VanDerWerff received two first-place votes and 14 total points, and is the first Black Panther to win the award.

Other players receiving consideration were Burke’s Adisyn Indahl — who received the other first-place vote — Bridgewater-Emery’s Julia Weber, Wagner’s Emma Yost, Mitchell’s Kaspen Alm, Parkston’s Mya Nuebel and Platte-Geddes’ Cadence Van Zee.

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Platte-Geddes sophomore Karly VanDerWerff hits through a pair of Burke defenders during a match in the first round of the Class B state tournament on Nov. 18 at The Summit Arena in Rapid City. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

‘A force to be reckoned with’

When No. 7 attacks a volleyball, it commands attention.

“She was powerful, that’s the biggest thing I noticed,” Johnson said of VanDerWerff. “I knew that she was going to be a force to be reckoned with at the net if I could get her to be aggressive with her hitting. She had a fast approach, her arm swing was just so natural and she would swing through the ball. You don’t see that a lot with kids early on.”

With naturally sound mechanics, it was on VanDerWerff to develop a certain poise and guile at the net. While she feels she’s grown considerably in that capacity, it’s also an area she feels that can continue to be amplified.

“I definitely felt like I played with more confidence this year compared to when I was a freshman or an eighth-grader, and my confidence grew even more [as the season went along],” VanDerWerff explained. “Being a really successful team and knowing you have a chance to go to the state tournament really helped that mentality.”

As VanDerWerff’s confidence expands, so, too, does her volleyball skillset. Johnson points to serving and back-row defense as areas where VanDerWerff has continued to improve — evidenced by the service aces and digs she racked up in bunches throughout the season — that can sometimes be overlooked because of her presence at the net.

“She’s so adaptable and coachable,” Johnson said. “Last year, she hit outside a little bit and this year she didn’t get to do that, but that’s the thing with Karly. She’s so versatile that she could hit any position, she just happens to be our middle.”

This season, a key addition to VanDerWerff’s hitting repertoire was the slide, an attacking route where a middle hitter loops behind the setter to hit from a position toward the outside of the net.

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While it didn’t come overnight — Johnson says VanDerWerff picked up on it relatively quickly, but wasn’t using it often without prompting from the coach — by the end of the season, VanDerWerff was using the slide with regularity, often capitalizing on opportunities for kills with clinical efficiency.

“It takes a lot of teams off guard and we really used it to our advantage, especially in the state tournament,” VanDerWerff said. “It was definitely challenging at first, but it made me better and open to a lot more options so I was able to hit more, and that’s what I want to do.”

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Platte-Geddes sophomore Karly VanDerWerff digs out a serve during a match against Burke in the first round of the Class B state tournament on Nov. 18 at The Summit Arena in Rapid City. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Matt Gade

Familiar faces

Melissa Johnson has had a front row seat to VanDerWerff’s growth and development since she first stepped foot on the court as a sixth-grader — a debut season in which VanDerWerff vividly remembers swinging away despite having one broken arm.

Johnson was VanDerWerff’s coach for her two seasons of junior high volleyball, an assistant on the varsity team when VanDerWerff was an eighth-grader and then took over as varsity coach before last season. The coach describes VanDerWerff as “bubbly” and “a big personality,” but says it’s apparent she enters a different mental space on match days.

“You can tell when she’s ready to go for that game,” Johnson said. “She’ll be having a good time out on the court, but I can see her analyzing, thinking and getting focused so she’s ready to play, take the game seriously and win.”

Growing up in a family of athletes, VanDerWerff learned the basics of volleyball early on, allowing Johnson to teach her different skills earlier in her career, which is becoming more pronounced with each season.

However, the familiarity and chemistry extends well beyond VanDerWerff and Johnson. Of the six Black Panthers beside VanDerWerff who played more than 100 sets this season, three are fellow sophomores and two are juniors.

“That’s helped a lot,” VanDerWerff said. “We’re just so used to playing with each other and I’m excited to do it for another year. ... I enjoy the teamwork and the bonding, and we’re all really close off the court, too, so it’s all been really fun.”

VanDerWerff’s drive to compete will continue to grow her game, that much is certain, which allows her to dream about what lies ahead. The volleyball aspirations are clear: get back to the state tournament and win it.

And she has a bit of extra incentive. VanDerWerff’s mother won a basketball state title, and her father and older brother, Kelby, with whom she shared the jersey No. 7 in 2020, won state football titles during their time in high school.

“There’s a little pressure,” VanDerWerff admitted. “I want to try to win a championship just like them.”

Here’s a look at the other players who received consideration, with their vote-point totals in parentheses:

Adisyn Indahl, Burke (9): Indahl, a 5-foot-6 junior outside hitter, answered the call for the Cougars in getting back to the Class B state tournament. She had 598 kills, a .269 hitting percentage, 652 digs and 70 aces for Burke, which finished the season 29-11 and took eighth place in Rapid City, where she was an all-tournament team selection.

Julia Weber, Bridgewater-Emery (8): The 28-1 Huskies were led by another big season from Weber, a 5-foot-8 senior outside hitter. With 372 kills, 284 digs and 31 ace serves, Weber was selected to the Class B all-state second team.

Emma Yost, Wagner (5): Yost, a 5-foot-11 junior outside hitter, had a team-bests with 343 kills and 483 digs, while notching a .275 hitting percentage and scoring 35 blocks and 45 aces on the season. A Class A second-team all-state pick, she helped her Red Raiders to a 28-8 season and a fourth-place finish at the Class A state tournament.

Kaspen Alm, Mitchell (3): Led Mitchell with 375 kills, 41% kill % and .245 hitting percentage, 33 total blocks (12 solo) and 71 digs. 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter. Alm, a 6-foot-4 senior outside hitter, had a team-best 375 kills and led the team in hitting percentage of .245. The Midland University recruit had six matches with 20 kills or more and had 33 blocks for the season.

Mya Nuebel, Parkston (3): Nuebel, a 5-foot-4 sophomore outside hitter, grew into a leading role for the Trojans in 2021. For the season, she had 267 kills, 496 digs and 73 aces. She had a massive match in the SoDak 16, logging 30 kills to help Parkston get past Rapid City Christian for a Class A state tournament bid.

Cadence Van Zee, Platte-Geddes (3): Van Zee provided the Black Panthers with another powerful attacking option. The 5-foot-10 sophomore outside hitter amassed 401 kills and 444 digs, both second-most on the Platte-Geddes roster, and served up a team-leading 88 aces.

Previous award winners: 2001: Marcy Jacobsen, Mitchell; 2002 (winter): Chelaine Knudsen, Andes Central; 2002 (fall): Chelsey Miller, Mitchell; (*Note: 2002 season switch) 2003: Katrina Brooks, Andes Central; 2004: Gina Baldwin, Mitchell; 2005: Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2006: Jena Doom, Wagner; 2007: Kelli Fiegen, Parkston; 2008: Keaya Weber, Wagner; 2009: Jilanne Doom, Wagner; 2010: Charlee Nelson, Mitchell; 2011: Dana Misiaszek, Mitchell; 2012: Taylin Alm, Mitchell; 2013: Anna Flitner, Lyman; 2014: Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2015: Makaela Karst, Mount Vernon/Plankinton; 2016: Sierra Mesman, Bon Homme; 2017: Mackenzie Miller, Mitchell; 2018: Chelsea Brewster, Mitchell; 2019: Taylee Indahl, Burke; 2020: Julia Weber, Bridgewater-Emery; 2021: Karly VanDerWerff, Platte-Geddes.

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