Circumstances converged to make the result of Tuesday night's Class B, District 6 championship match between Northwest and Aurora seem almost insignificant.
While the Vikings were no doubt pleased to notch the program's 13th consecutive district title with a 25-10, 25-10, 27-25 victory over the Huskies, both teams entered the match knowing they would host win-or-go-home sub-state matches on Saturday — regardless of who won the district final. There was also the element of human tragedy as Aurora played while grieving the loss of assistant coach Lauren Akerson, who was killed in a two-vehicle accident early Saturday morning.
Following the match, the two teams shared private sentiments together in a prayer circle. Several players and coaches — from both teams — emerged teary-eyed.
"This wasn't about the Aurora-Northwest rivalry," Northwest coach Diane Rouzee said. "It was about us wanting to show that we cared."
Indeed, it was a touching scene at Rosencrants Gymnasium as Viking players all wore red ponytail holders, matching Aurora's school colors to pay their respects to the Huskies and Akerson. Members of both the Northwest and Aurora student bodies sported red bandanas on their head as a show of support.
"That was nice. We have had a lot of support through this," Aurora coach Lois Hixson said. "The volleyball community throughout the state is really pretty small and all of the teams here were very supportive to us."
Aurora's players paid tribute to Akerson in their own way, wearing turquoise-colored ribbons in their hair.
"We just wanted to do something subtle," Hixson said. "We weren't trying to sensationalize our loss at all, but that was Lauren's favorite color and we also left her seat empty on the bench because she's still with us. It meant a lot to the girls to be able to express that."
Akerson, 31, was an assistant for Hixson during her entire eight-year tenure as Aurora's head coach. The two also coached a season together before Hixson took over the head coaching job when Akerson was a volunteer assistant.
Hixson said her fondest memories of Akerson will be how she always brought humor to the team.
"She just made us laugh," Hixson said. "Lauren would tell jokes, she liked to do pranks and she just kept us laughing — that's what I'll always remember."
With Akerson's funeral scheduled for 10 a.m. Wednesday at First Evangelical Lutheran Church in Aurora, Rouzee said the timing of Tuesday night's district tournament obviously wasn't ideal.
"Their community has had a tough, tough weekend and then with the visitation and the funeral taking place, you just can't imagine how they were able to come here tonight and play volleyball and not have their focus be somewhere else," Rouzee said. "I have no idea what (Aurora) must be going through, but I'm a sympathetic person and I really feel for them.
"I can't even imagine what I would be saying to my team right now if I was in their situation."
On the court, defending Class B state champion Northwest (35-0 and No. 1 in the Omaha World-Herald's all-class ratings) dominated Aurora in the first two sets. The Class B No. 6-rated Huskies (26-8), who are one of just four teams to win a set from the Vikings this season, finally began to compete at their capability in the third.
"Coming in, we just focused on Seward and knew that if we won, we would fight in the (championship) match as hard as we could," Hixson said. "We're feisty. We've played Northwest a lot — we know what they do and they know what we do — so it was just a matter of who made the fewest mistakes.
"I'm really pleased with our focus. I couldn't have asked for any more. I challenged the girls not to necessarily play for Lauren, but just to play for everything that she has given us because she was a special lady."
Rouzee said the Huskies were a completely different team in set three. Northwest had to overcome an 18-13 deficit to finally close out the sweep.
"Aurora has a lot of pride and they stepped up their game a lot and it felt like we were down almost the entire set," said Rouzee, whose team improved to 3-0 against the Huskies this season. "We had errors, we got shook a little bit, but you've got to give Aurora credit because they came back and played a lot better and we struggled a little bit.
"I have to also give my kids credit. They found a way to get it done. No matter what the situation is, they hate to lose."
Erin Sorahan and McKenzie Brown had 11 kills apiece to lead Northwest. Katelyn Placke added eight kills and 14 assists and Mackenzie Burnham finished with 15 assists for the Vikings.
Kiley Hixson countered with 10 kills for Aurora and Taylor Thiele had seven kills. Allison Penner had a match-high 18 assists for the Huskies.
Northwest and Aurora both advanced to the B-6 final after cruising to 3-0 sweeps in the first round.
The Vikings needed just 54 minutes to beat York 25-6, 25-8, 25-7 as Sorahan had 12 kills and Placke had 11 kills and 16 assists. Burnham added 20 assists for Northwest, which had a 43-9 advantage in kills over the Dukes (7-24).
Aurora also had a business like 3-0 sweep, beating Seward 25-10, 25-14, 25-16 in the first round. Thiele had 13 kills, three aces and two blocks for the Huskies, while Hixson had 12 kills and Penner finished with 27 assists.
Taneal Stutzman led Seward (16-19) with eight kills. Hannah Moody had 10 assists for the Bluejays.
"I'm just glad Aurora has another chance to qualify for the state tournament," Rouzee said. "Tonight was a little weird because the district championship match didn't have a lot of intensity because of that. We both knew we would be hosting sub-state on Saturday, so it kind of made tonight less important."
Class B, District 6
Northwest 3, York 0
York (7-24) 6 8 7
Northwest 25 25 25
YORK (kills-aces-blocks)—Pieper 0-0-0, Gillham 0-0-0, Kadavy 4-0-0, Burke 0-0-1, Heng 2-0-0, Malleck 3-0-1, Tonniges 0-0-0, Hansen 0-0-0. Totals 9-0-2.
NORTHWEST (kills-aces-blocks)—Sorahan 12-1-0, Burnham 0-0-0, Placke 11-0-3, Martin 3-0-3, Brown 7-1-0, Keezer 5-0-0, An.Carlini 0-1-0, Schleicher 4-0-1, Al.Carlini 0-4-0, Cooksley 0-0-0, Beckmann 1-0-0. Totals 43-7-7.
Assists—York 9 (Pieper 9), Northwest 38 (Burnham 20, Placke 16, Schleicher 2).
Aurora 3, Seward 0
Aurora 25 25 25
Seward (16-19) 10 14 16
AURORA (kills-aces-blocks)—Richters 0-2-0, Thiele 13-3-2, Hixson 12-1-0, Schneider 4-0-2, Penner 2-1-1, Ohlson 4-1-0, Nachtigal 4-0-3, Wilson 0-1-0, Grosshans 0-0-0, Brechbill 1-0-0, Narber 0-0-0. Totals 40-9-8.
SEWARD (kills-aces-blocks)—Bruns 0-0-0, Volzke 2-1-0, Hartman 2-0-0, Duff 3-1-0, Stutzman 0-0-0, Hanson 8-1-1, Moody 0-0-0, Simmerman 0-0-0. Totals 15-3-1.
Assists—Aurora 31 (Penner 27, Schneider 2, Ohlson 1, Grosshans 1), Seward 12 (Moody 10, Stutzman 2).
Northwest 3, Aurora 0
Aurora (26-8) 10 10 25
Northwest (35-0) 25 25 25
AURORA (kills-aces-blocks)—Richters 0-1-0, Thiele 7-0-0, Hixson 10-0-0, Schneider 2-0-1, Penner 1-0-0, Ohlson 4-0-0, Nachtigal 4-0-2, Wilson 0-0-0, Grosshans 0-0-0. Totals 28-1-3.
NORTHWEST (kills-aces-blocks)—Sorahan 11-0-1, Burnham 1-1-0, Placke 8-0-1, Martin 2-0-3, Brown 11-1-0, Keezer 0-0-0, An.Carlini 0-1-0, Schleicher 3-0-2. Totals 36-3-7.
Assists—Aurora 24 (Penner 24), Northwest 34 (Burnham 15, Placke 14, An.Carlini 3, Schleicher 2).