Mary Kate Bendlage had just delivered one of her 10 kills.
Then the Holy Trinity sophomore turned to her teammates to celebrate, punctuating each word with a foot stomp.It was her first state volleyball tournament in a program where making it to the final eight was a tradition, and Bendlage, as well as the rest of her young teammates, were embracing their first opportunity at what it was like.
Bendlage and the Crusaders would fall to Notre Dame in three close games in Wednesday’s Class 1A semifinals, but the week had been an education for a young team that has a future to build.
The state tournament has always had a been-there-done-that feel for the Crusaders — it was the program’s 11th appearance in the last 12 seasons — but for many on this year’s team, playing in the Alliant Energy PowerHouse was a new experience.
The disappointment in the 26-24, 26-24, 27-25 loss to the rival Nikes still hung with the Crusaders moments after the match, but there was a sense that this was only a beginning.
“They’re going to do great things,” senior Kassi Randolph said. “And they’re going to do great things for years and years to come.”
Randolph had been part of three state tournament teams, so she knows how important it was for the Crusaders to be here after missing last season.
It’s different than any other arena where the Crusaders play during the season — quarterfinal and semifinal matches are played with few court-level seats, so the noise, the lighting, everything about the stage, is a new experience.
“It’s a great help, because the atmosphere is so different,” Randolph said. “The roars from the crowd come from above. To have that experience will really help them next year.
”Forty of the state’s best teams — eight in each class — qualify each season. With that kind of talent, matches can come down to simple intangibles, and one of those is experience.
“You see your best teams up here,” Holy Trinity coach Melissa Freesmeier said. “We’ve been here all week, so we’ve gotten to see them play. You see what it takes.”
Randolph and libero Anna Sobczak were the only seniors for the Crusaders. The bulk of this team will be returning.
Bendlage had 19 kills in two matches. Natalie Randolph, Kassi’s sister who is a sophomore, also had 19. Kayla Box, a junior, has emerged as a strong middle hitter. Junior Brooke Mueller had 17 kills in the two matches. 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 hadn’t experienced it before,” Sobczak said. “Now they’ll 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 be pushing to get back here next year,” Freesmeier said.
“Next year, we’ll be experienced,” Natalie Randolph said. “We’re going to come back here next year, and we’re going to be stronger than ever.”
Kassi Randolph knew what the week meant for the Crusaders.
“I’ve got all the confidence in them,” she said, “and I’m going to be their biggest cheerleader.”
John Bohnenkamp is a national and state award-winning sports reporter and a regular contributor to Pen City Current.
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