PLATTE — There’s something different about Platte-Geddes volleyball in 2021.

As one of the few remaining unbeatens in South Dakota prep volleyball, an unblemished 8-0 match record stands out, but the manner in which those wins have come has been perhaps the most impressive. The Black Panthers have been dominant early, failing to win just three sets so far this season.

A year ago, Platte-Geddes was 6-2 through eight matches on their way to a 16-3 start, but a few missteps down the stretch saw the season end at 17-8. Despite the sour end to last year’s campaign, coach Melissa Johnson’s team came into this season with a certain confidence and swagger.

“I think we expected this, just maybe not with how many sets we haven’t lost.” Johnson said. “That’s pretty good and I’ve been really impressed with the girls for that.”

Platte-Geddes’ closest call to date came in a Sept. 7 match against Wagner. Twice the Black Panthers fell behind in set count after dropping the first and third frames, but they rallied to win in five.

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“We are resilient, that’s what I keep telling the girls,” Johnson said. “We’ve only lost three sets, but for example in the Wagner game we could’ve given up and said, ‘Oh, we’re not going to finish this game, Wagner’s going to beat us,’ but our girls stayed positive. We’d been used to winning every set, but the girls came back and were able to finish strong.”

Johnson also points to her team’s continuity and maturity as major factors in the near-flawless start to her second season leading the program. There was only one senior on last year’s roster, so varsity match experience isn’t lacking despite Platte-Geddes’ relatively young roster.

With the foundation in place, the team has a clear goal. The Black Panthers still want to be playing volleyball come the third weekend in November.

“That’s every team’s goal is to make it to the state tournament, so of course we want to be there,” said Karly VanDerWerff, a sophomore middle hitter.

VanDerWerff, alongside outside hitters Regan Hoffman and Cadence Van Zee and setter Avery DeVries, have been the central figures in an offensive upgrade for the Black Panthers that started in Johnson’s first season.

“I had a lot of expectations last year in my first year, and one of them was a quicker offense. That was a big deal,” Johnson said. “At first it was a struggle, but last year we improved big time. The girls have really taken that on and are working super hard on that offense, and now we can run even more than we did last year.”

What’s perhaps even more promising for the Platte-Geddes program is the long-term future. When this season concludes, the team will see four seniors move on, but returns the entire quartet of DeVries, Hoffman, Van Zee and VanDerWerff.

Platte-Geddes' Cadence Van Zee scrambles to return the ball over her shoulder against Avon during the Hanson Early Bird Tournament title match on Aug. 26, 2021, in Alexandria. (Landon Dierks / Republic)
Platte-Geddes' Cadence Van Zee scrambles to return the ball over her shoulder against Avon during the Hanson Early Bird Tournament title match on Aug. 26, 2021, in Alexandria. (Landon Dierks / Republic)

“With us being a younger team, we’re only going to keep getting better,” Hoffman said.

Added VanDerWerff: “It’s very exciting that we have a couple more years to work together.”

But those are mostly thoughts for many months down the road. Johnson has her team focused on this season and the upcoming challenges the team will face if they’re to fulfill their goal of competing for a state title in Rapid City.

The Black Panthers’ midseason push begins at the Cavalier Clash Tournament on Saturday in Tyndall. Avon and Wagner, the only two programs to take a set off of Platte-Geddes this season, will be there and so will other powerful programs such as two-time defending Class B state champions Northwestern.

“I think that’s something we need to see, how we compete with some of those top teams,” Johnson said. “We’ve had a good start, but we have to play some teams that are going to push us and make us better so that we’re ready to make it to state, first, and then hopefully play there and do well.”