There’s a completely different atmosphere in the gym this year as the Thunder Basin High School volleyball team approaches an important season for the program.
The Bolts finished fourth at state both of the last two years. That was great the first time around for a new program, but the second time was a disappointment that has festered within the program for the last nine months.
The match that killed Thunder Basin’s hopes of a state title berth actually came in the regional tournament, which TBHS hosted. A five-set loss in the championship proved to be costly, because it put the Bolts on the same side of the state bracket as eventual champion Casper Kelly Walsh High School.
“Last year was definitely a mental lapse at regionals. That’s something I’ll own up to,” returning all-state player Rigan McInerny said. “I think we all went home with a really sour taste in our mouth.”
No one took the lack of progress harder than head coach Winnett Martin, and she took full responsibility for the Bolts not being ready for the postseason.
“I really hold that fourth place from last year heavy on my shoulders and the kids know that,” she said. “They’ve seen me in tears. … I have sat on that moment for a year with it sitting in the pit of my stomach.”
Martin is no stranger to championships. She won three straight state titles coaching Wright High School before moving on to Thunder Basin. That’s what made two straight fourth-place finishes a tough pill to swallow.
“I know what it takes to get something other than fourth and to place higher, and honestly I don’t feel like I got the job done,” Martin said. “I feel like I did OK and OK isn’t good enough for me.”
The program wasn’t performing up to Martin’s standards and she was determined to make changes for her third season. She said she tried to create a happy, fun atmosphere last year, but now there are new priorities.
For one, coasting or not going 100 percent in practice will not be a part of Thunder Basin volleyball. Also, if players make mistakes, they’ll be called on them until the problem is fixed.
The one thing stopping those changes from taking hold before was bad attitudes, the players said. However, Martin quickly found that her team was just as ready for a higher standard as she was.
“In every girls sport, you’re going to have bad attitudes, sass and all that stuff,” McInerny said. “We’re just trying to keep that stuff out of our gym this year.”
The difference in mentality is already noticeable, said senior setter Chastin Nelson. Players are no longer taking criticism so personally and as soon as they’re inside the gym doors, it’s time to get to work.
“I think this year we have a lot of motivation to get things done,” Nelson said. “You can tell how much our focus is on a whole other level from last year.”
Road to redemption
For the players, the journey to get over the fourth-place hump actually started in the spring. The Bolts began to build momentum during their AAU season, going undefeated and qualifying for a national tournament in Las Vegas.
Camps and open gyms over the summer followed, and by the time Aug. 19 rolled around, Nelson said she and her teammates were actually excited for the start of school. It meant that volleyball season and a chance for redemption had finally arrived.
Now that it’s here, the team has a much greater sense of urgency, especially for the three seniors.
“It’s my senior year. I know that every practice I’m going to come into and work my little hiney off,” McInerny said. “I’m playing to win for all the girls around me.”
Even though the Bolts have yet to play a game this season, Martin said the changes are already taking effect. She and her players showed up on Day one with a new standard and it all stemmed from what they felt was an unacceptable finish at state last year.
“Because I have taken it so hard, I think they’re taking it as hard,” Martin said. “They know how seriously I’m taking it, so they’re committing that seriously too. It’s been interesting. They’ve come in and taken ownership of this team.”
Most of the focus has gone toward shaping the culture to start the season, but the Bolts also have the talent to make a run at state. McInerney is the lone returning all-state player, but she and Nelson, the senior setter, will provide a great base.
Despite graduating an all-state player in Jersie Taylor, Martin said this is the most-talented team she’s had at TBHS. Adding some height will be one of the biggest improvements, but Martin expects to be one of the best serving, serve-receive and blocking teams in the state once again.
Gabby Drube is a returning junior who Martin can see playing in the middle again this year, but several other positions are up in the air. Junior Elsa Clark and freshman JoJo Spelts are two more to watch for this season.
Clark has stepped into a leadership role and is vying for an outside hitter spot, while Spelts is a 6-foot-1 freshman who is making huge strides in practice. With so many good players, it will take some time to solidify a lineup.
Martin isn’t extremely worried about winning games at the Cheyenne Invite to start the season, because she will be doing a lot of experimenting. Her goal for the first games is to get stats for all the players, which will give her a much better idea what the top lineup will look like.
The first six games mean absolutely nothing compared to the final six of the season, which are the ones the Bolts are all in for.
“We’re sure going to give every ounce of effort we can to place something other than fourth,” Martin said.
The bond between teammates and the commitment reminds Martin a lot of the 2010 state title team she coached in Wright, which really changed the culture in the program going forward. It’s not necessarily about winning a state title this year, but setting the standard for future Thunder Basin teams.
“I do think this is a special team. It’s a special team because it’s going to change our program.” Martin said. “I think this is a team that I’m going to be talking about for 10 more years.”