WINNER -- Winner has been one of the numerous teams impacted by COVID-19 this season.
But even as the virus led to a rough patch in the middle of the year, the Class A No. 5 Warriors have followed through on playing their best volleyball at the end of the year and parlaying it into a second straight Southeast South Dakota Conference tournament championship on Saturday. Winner didn’t drop a set during a 4-0 weekend, including a 25-13, 25-8 win over Burke in the title game.
“We talked about how important this tournament is and how we want to be playing our best volleyball the last week before regions and SoDak 16,” said Winner coach Jaime Keiser, whose team was 19-4 prior to Monday’s regular-season finale against Platte-Geddes. “… We talked about how we needed to move up on points here coming up going into the last (games) and going undefeated and winning the SESD would really help us get more power points.”
The Warriors’ ascent has been steady since they dropped three of four matches at the Sanford Pentagon tournament on Sept. 26. Starting libero Maggie LaCompte and backup Rylee Root both missed the tournament and Ellie Brozik suffered an injury early in tournament play that led to Winner dropping its first matches of the year.
As Winner became healthier, the win streak it amassed prior to its trip to Sioux Falls returned. Prior to Monday’s contest, the Warriors won 10 of their last 11 games, only falling in five sets to Class B No. 3 Chester Area.
Even with it peaking at the right time and having the experience of a back-to-back state qualifier, Winner is trying to maintain level-headedness this year. It takes the age-old mantra of “one game at a time” to heart as it stands two wins away from a trip to Watertown on Nov. 19-21.
“Just take one match at a time,” Keiser said. “… Don't take anything for granted just because we made it to the state tournament the last two years.”
Fittingly, Winner’s path to Watertown isn’t as straightforward as normal years.
Bennett County is the only other Region 7A school participating in volleyball this year, so both Region 7A and 8A are combined for region play. The No. 8 and 9 seeds play a first-round game, and then there are four matches to decide the SoDak 16 qualifiers.
Winner (43.783) is currently the No. 3 seed and would host Belle Fourche (39.105). Class A No. 4 Hill City and Rapid City Christian have a higher power-point average than the Warriors.
While Winner is in line to host its region match, it comes in a region it rarely faces. That makes preparation harder than normal years.
“Another hard thing is I don’t know a whole lot of coaches out there,” Keiser said. “... Usually you can talk to somebody who’s played them, but we don’t ever go out there so I don’t get to know those coaches so well.”
It’ll be the latest challenge for the Warriors’ experienced group that has continued to step up and conquer challenges the last few years. With a group of five seniors and six juniors, Winner will continue its aggressive attack and above-average serving that it hopes gets teams out of their system, even if it comes against a team it has rarely faced in the past.
“We’ve had some seniors that have really stepped up,” Keiser said. “We have five really good seniors returning and they just want to go back to the state tournament and finish something we haven’t accomplished the last two years.”