Mary Kate Bendlage had just delivered one of her 10 kills.
Then, the second-year Holy Trinity turned to her teammates in celebration, punctuating every word with a kick. It was his first state volleyball tournament in a program where making the last eight was a tradition, and Bendlage, along with the rest of his young teammates, were enjoying their first chance at what it looked like.
Bendlage and the Crusaders will fall to Notre Dame in three close games in Wednesday’s Class 1A semifinals, but the week has been an education for a young team with a future to build.
The state tournament has always had a de facto feel for the Crusaders – it was the program’s 11th appearance in the past 12 seasons – but for many of this year’s squad, playing in the Alliant Energy PowerHouse was a new experience.
The disappointment of the 26-24, 26-24, 27-25 loss to rival Nikes still hung over the Crusaders moments after the game, but it felt like it was just the beginning.
“They’re going to do great things,” said senior Kassi Randolph. “And they’re going to do great things for years and years to come.”
Randolph had been on three state tournament teams, so she knows how important it was for the Crusaders to be here after missing last season.
It’s unlike any other arena the Crusaders play in during the season – quarter-final and semi-final matches are played with few seats at pitch level, so noise, lighting, whatever the scene, is a new experience.
“It’s a big help, because the atmosphere is so different,” Randolph said. “The roars of the crowd are coming from above. Having that experience will really help them next year.
“Forty of the state’s top teams — eight in each category — qualify each season. With that kind of talent, matches can come down to simple intangibles, and one of them is experience.
“You see your best teams here,” said Holy Trinity coach Melissa Freesmeier. “We’ve been here all week, so we got to see them play. You see what it takes.
Randolph and libero Anna Sobczak were the only senior Crusaders. The bulk of this team will be back.
Bendlage had 19 kills in two games. Natalie Randolph, Kassi’s sophomore sister, was also 19. Kayla Box, a junior, established herself as a strong middle hitter. Junior Brooke Mueller had 17 kills over the two games. Junior Alexa Dingman, sophomore Taegan Denning and freshman Teagan Snaadt got valuable minutes.
“I think it was important for them because a lot of them had never experienced this before,” Sobczak said. “Now they will come back stronger.”
The Crusaders advanced with a five-game win over Janesville before succumbing to the top-seeded Nikes.
That kind of experience in the crucible of the one-and-the-season-is-done tournament, knowing the value of every point, is a lesson for the future.
“They’re going to push to come back here next year,” Freesmeier said.
“Next year we will be experienced,” said Natalie Randolph. “We are going to come back here next year, and we are going to be stronger than ever.”
Kassi Randolph knew what the week meant for the Crusaders.
“I have complete faith in them,” she said, “and I’m going to be their biggest cheerleader.”
John Bohnenkamp is an award-winning national and regional sports journalist and a regular contributor to Pen City Current.