Cardinals make it three
Few athletes have more practice celebrating than high school volleyball players, who typically greet each point of a game with a cheer. Consequently, Eudora's success over the last several seasons has rendered the Cardinals experts in the field.
And early in Saturday's sub-state tournament, the team stacked up points, games and matches with the ho-hum exuberance of a group that had done it so many times.
When the Cardinals actually got to a position they had been in each of the last two seasons, however, they ditched the "been-there-done-that" attitude, greeting their third-consecutive sub-state title with an unbridled exclamation that shook the gym and all inside it.
The Cardinals are going back to state, and they're awfully excited.
"That was amazing," Eudora junior Elaina Kouri said. "We worked a lot on our defense and staying together as a team. We used to get down on each other a lot, but we just really connected."
Eudora avenged two of its five losses on the season by beating St. James Academy in the finals of the sub-state tournament hosted by Spring Hill. The Cardinals breezed through the opening two matches of the tournament, beating Baldwin and De Soto in two games apiece, then bounced back from a game one loss to beat St. James in three.
The Cards took the final match 20-25, 25-20, 25-18.
"They're all different and they're all sweet," Eudora coach Jill Stutler said of the team's three-straight sub-state titles. "We dominated pretty well in all aspects in the first two, then we battled well against St. James. It was a great team effort."
The noise in Spring Hill's gym grew louder as Eudora crept closer to securing its third-consecutive state bid, and when a St. James hitter knocked the final point out of bounds, the bench and the stands erupted and the Cardinals came together in a mass in the middle of the court to celebrate.
That happy ending was far from certain when the match started, however.
Eudora lost its two previous matches to St. James, all coming at the Sept. 30 Wellsville tournament, falling once in pool play, then again in the tournament's finals.
It appeared early that the Thunder -- a team comprised exclusively of freshmen and sophomores -- had not forgotten the key to beating the experienced Cardinals.
Eudora took a 3-1 lead on a Nikki Snider kill, but quickly fell behind and trailed 11-5 after communication errors, poor serves and a number of other mistakes piled up.
Erin Kracl squeezed off a pair of kills to bring Eudora within three, 11-8, then came up big moments later to help even the game.
Kracl teamed with Kouri for a block, then had two kills and an ace. She capped the run off with a huge dig, saving a point and pulling Eudora within one, 16-15.
The score tied at 17 and 18, but Eudora had trouble even handling the St. James serve at the end of the game and eventually fell, 25-20.
"We came out really tense," Snider said. "We've lost to them the last two times and everyone was timid with state on the line. But once we got the first game done, we knew what we had to do."
Eudora won't look as vulnerable again all night. Kracl finished with 22 kills against St. James and 55 on the night. Snider had 14 against the Thunder and 39 in the tournament. Both were key in the final two games, but plenty of Cardinals played a part in pushing the team toward Friday's opening round of the Class 4A state tournament in Salina.
Kracl and Kouri opened the second game with a block, then Kracl offered a kill to make it 2-0. The Cards took a 5-1 lead and extended it to 10-5 after a Snider hit.
St. James rallied and closed to within a point, 11-10 and stayed close. Kayci Vickers had a key dig, however, and Snider turned that defense into a point with one kill, then had another moments later, putting Eudora up 19-15.
St. James rallied yet again, tying the score at 20, but Eudora scored the final five points to take the game, 25-20.
"We weren't going to go off the court without us winning," Snider said. "We watched a lot of film (of St. James) and that really helped us. We took out our revenge and we used it."
The final game of the match came with all the drama one would expect -- the score was tight, the hits were huge and the emotion was palpable.
The score tied at every single number between one and 16. When the Thunder took a two-point lead -- the largest of the game to that point -- Eudora's hitters finally took control.
Snider struck to bring Eudora within one, 18-17, and a clutch dig by Kouri eventually led to a 19-18 Eudora lead.
A Kracl hit struck, then ever so slowly crept over the net for a 20-18 lead.
Eudora turned momentum into a sub-state championship trophy, taking the final seven points of the match for the 25-18 win.
"We had some big defensive digs that really swung the momentum to our side, and that was huge," Stutler said. "We knew we had to make some runs toward the end of the game, and we did."
That's where the happy story has ended the last two years -- at the center court of the sub-state tournament site.
Eudora traveled to Salina in 2004 and 2005, but wasn't able to advance beyond pool play on the tournament's first day.
The team hasn't forgotten those disappointments, Kouri said, but they've in no way affected confidence.
"Third time's a charm," she said. "We definitely want to take it. This is our year."