When a team is playing in its 12th state tournament, expectations are generally high for a team to succeed.
The Muskego girls volleyball team brought the experience to Thursday’s WIAA Division 1 quarterfinal match at the Resch Center in Green Bay, but it was Merrill, making its first trip to state in 30 years, that was the most calm team under pressure.
With the match tied at 1, Merrill won Games 3 and 4 to advance to the state semifinals, 25-22, 20-25, 25-23, 25-20. Muskego ended the season 31-12.
“We played our hearts out, we all did,” Muskego senior outside hitter Kelly Spoerk said. “We worked so hard to get here and our team is strong. We’re like a family. We went into this together, we’re coming out together.”
“I think that the girls played really hard,” Muskego coach Karen Anderson said. “I think that Merrill’s a really nice team. They played really well defensively.”
Muskego dropped the first game 25-22, but rebounded in Game 2. Mary O’Connor had one of her team-high 16 kills to put the Warriors up 20-17. From there, Muskego won 25-22.
With momentum on their side, Muskego let Merrill creep back into it. With Game 3 tied at 22, Merrill scored three of the final four points to win, 25-23.
“We needed to put a ball down and we didn’t,” said Anderson about the Game 3 loss. “If you don’t put a ball down, eventually the other team’s going to score.”
Muskego took an early 7-5 lead in the fourth game, but Merrill closed out the match, 25-20.
“Even though pretty much everybody out there probably picked Muskego to win, everyone around us knew what we had and were pulling for us,” Merrill coach Stephanie Nelson said.
Anderson thought the Warriors were tight for most of the match.
“I think there’s a number of things we could have done better,” Anderson said. “We didn’t pass real well, but the thing is I like the fact that even though we weren’t playing our best, we still hung in there. … I told them, ‘Win or lose, you leave it all out there and hold your head high.’”
The loss ended a phenomenal season for Muskego.
“It was definitely a work in progress throughout the whole year, finding each other, working as a team,” O’Connor said.
The Warriors lost six seniors from last season, so finding their identity early in this season was key. Muskego played in its first year in the Classic Eight Conference and won the title with a perfect 7-0 record. During one stretch, Muskego won 10 straight matches before falling to three teams from Illinois in a tournament.
“It was a phenomenal feeling just to make it (to state),” Spoerk said. “I’m so thankful for the team and all the hard work we did to get here."
It helped that the Warriors were a close-knit group of athletes who played for one another.
“I’ve never been on a team like this before that was this close together,” O’Connor said. “We did everything together. We worked hard together, we played hard together.”
According to O’Connor, determination was a major driving force behind why Muskego had such a solid 2012 campaign.
“I think we’re all a lot of very good players,” Spoerk said. “When you have perfect passes, perfect sets, hitters running their routes, it makes it easier for another hitter. We were a very, very solid team all around.”
Along with Spoerk and O’Connor, Kristyn Paszkiewicz and Sam Jezewski were the seniors on this year’s team. All four players were with the Muskego program for four years and each contributed in their own way.
“Those kids are great,” Anderson said. “They worked so hard to get to this point. The team’s made a ton of progress in this season and those kids did a great job in leading the other kids.”
The seniors were also role models to the younger players.
“I think we’re kind of like the mothers,” Spoerk said. “We’re the mothers of our little family.”
The junior class is stacked with eight players, four of whom were starters on this year’s team. Those players are a dedicated group, O’Connor and Spoerk said, and will be relied on next season.
“I think they’ll take the bonds that they’ve already made, we’ve become so close,” Spoerk said. “With only a few of us leaving, they’re going to keep that family and that love together and that’s really what a team needs.”
Anderson said the juniors are a hard-working and tenacious bunch. The team has a lot to build on for next season.
“As we’re huddled crying (after the match), they said, ‘Next year we’ll do it for you, we’ll do it for you,’” Spoerk said. “They have a lot of great, young players and I think they can go all the way next year and I’d love to come back to watch them do that.”