GRAND ISLAND — The Exeter-Milligan girls volleyball team is one of the best in Nebraska at the art of the dog pile.
With all the practice they have had the past four years, they should be.
For the third time in four years the Exeter-Milligan Timberwolves showed the team on the other side of the net just how it's done.
They defeated the No. 1 seed Guardian Angels Central Catholic Bluejays 3-1 to earn the Class D-1 state title at the Heartland Events Center on Saturday night.
The teams split the opening two sets with the Timberwolves taking the first, 25-20, before struggling in a 15-25 loss in the second.
The T-Wolves rolled in set three, 25-13. In the fourth and final set senior Jackie Luzum took over en route to a 25-20 win that sent the Timberwolves to the floor at the Heartland Events Center.
Exeter-Milligan won championships in 2009 and 2010 with both titles coming against Howells. Last season the Humphrey Bulldogs interrupted the T-Wolves' run. The last two championships came in Grand Island, while in 2009 the Wolves won their first at the Nebraska Coliseum.
Exeter-Milligan head coach Darcy White referred to the seniors on this year's team as her daughters, and on Saturday night the team remained focused despite a rough second set.
“We didn't play well in the second set, probably our low point this week,” said White. “But I was so proud of the way the girls bounced back in the third set and stayed focused. We played with more confidence and a little bit more relaxed. I was proud of the way they finished. My seniors are great leaders and they have been an inspiration to my younger players.”
In 2010 White coached her daughter Claire, an All-State pick, in the final against Humphrey. Claire was the only senior on last year's team. This year several players who have been together since they were very young played their final match. These same girls were on the floor for the first championship back in 2009.
After the Exeter-Milligan girls had taken a 2-1 lead with the third set win, Luzum, one of those five seniors, took the game over while the final score was still in doubt.
With setter and fellow senior Taylor Erdkamp feeding her the ball on the left side, Luzum drilled seven of her 11 kills in the fourth set. That helped the Timberwolves pull away from an 18-17 lead and stretch the margin to 23-19. The T-Wolves and their fans could almost not contain the anticipation.
A long attack by the Bluejays made it 24-19, but Guardian Angels got a kill from Abby Ortmeier, who led the team with 11 kills and nine blocks, to put off the E-M celebration for at least one more point.
The Timberwolves didn't make their fans wait any longer as the storied careers of five special seniors ended in the most fitting manner … a state championship.
“It feels awesome, it's difficult to put into words,” said Luzum. “It's over, but the seniors went out the way they wanted to. We have been together for a long time, I can even remember back to all of us playing club ball. When we get down, we can get back up because we know how to pick each other up. We've played for so long together, we never feel that we are out of game.”
The last three years the Timberwolves have come into the state tournament as one of the favorites. This season the Exeter-Milligan girls were the No. 6 seed, and their run to the title was a journey through the top three seeds, with wins over No. 3 Howells/Dodge and No. 2 Sutherland before their Saturday night win over No. 1 GACC.
Erdkamp, who set up the Exeter-Milligan hitters with 28 set assists and 14 digs, said the whole thing just didn't seem real.
“It's all surreal to me right now, nothing has really set in,” she said.
GACC pounded 37 team kills, finished with 20 blocks and had 26 set assists with Jamie Petz leading the team with 24.
The champions had 34 team kills with Luzum's 11 leading the way. Yet there was plenty of balance to keep the GACC blockers busy as seniors Malinda Hall, Megan Zwickl and Jennifer Pribyl all finished with six, while Pribyl added five blocks to her night's work.
On defense, Exeter-Milligan recorded 70 digs, 14 each from Erdkamp and Luzum, 13 from Madison Horner and 10 more from Pribyl.
“This is like no dream I could ever imagine, I'm still in shock,” said Erdkamp. “It's what we worked for and to accomplish it finally, it's just difficult to put into words.”