Skyler Nekoliczak didn’t know what to expect from the Central Valley volleyball team entering the season.

The Cougars lost a strong senior class to graduation and had only one senior returning, along with a few players with little varsity experience.

But Central Valley came together for a 24-7 season and earned a berth to the state tournament after sweeping Maywood-Hayes Center in the D1-7 district final this past Saturday.

The No. 10 Cougars take on No. 2 Pleasanton at 1:30 p.m. Thursday at Lincoln Southeast.

“The girls have really exceeded my expectations, stepped into some big roles and are doing everything they need to do,” Nekoliczak said. “We’re starting three sophomores, two juniors and a senior so it’s been awesome seeing those young girls play like they’ve been here for two or three years.”

An important stretch for Central Valley came early in the season when the Cougars went 2-1 with wins over C-2, No. 10 Summerland and D-1 No. 7 Chambers-Wheeler Central, and falling to No. 3 Overton in three sets.

Nekoliczak said that helped not only in confidence, but also in power points to get them into a district final match, a place where the Cougars lost last year. After falling to Humphrey/Lindsay Holy Family in the D1-5 subdistrict, Central Valley had enough points to play for a state berth.

“All those teams (Summerland, CWC and Overton) are down at the state tournament this year, and going 2-1 in that stretch, as well as taking Overton to three sets, was a big confidence booster for us,” she said. “To be honest, that was a stretch that helped be back in position where we were last year.”

Senior setter Kensey Wadas has led the offense this season dishing out 686 set assists. That wasn’t her position during her sophomore season but Nekoliczak decided to run a 6-2 offense with her as one of the setters. She said Wadas has grown into the setter position, as well as being a leader as the only Cougar senior.

“She has handled the leadership role awesome and I’ve enjoyed seeing her step into that role,” Nekoliczak said. “She just keeps getting better at the setter position. We are running a 5-1 this year and she has handled that very well. She is doing everything that she needs to do to help our team be successful.”

Wadas has had plenty of options to go to during the season as she has five players with over 100 kills. Ashlyn Wright leads the Cougars with 250 kills, while Vanessa Wood has chipped in 213 kills and 50 blocks. Neleigh Poss and Danielle Wadsworth each have 165 kills. Nekoliczak said balance has been very key for Central Valley.

“That’s what helps us be successful against good teams,” she said. “We trust any of those sets to go to any of our players because they can put it down and be successful to get a kill. It’s not just one player teams need to focus on, it’s six players. Even Kensey has put down some kills (62) for us.”

Pleasanton returns most of its players back from last year’s fourth-place finish at state. The Bulldogs have three players with over 200 kills. Katelyn Lindner leads the way with 338 kills and 44 blocks, while Isabelle Paitz has chipped in 221 kills and Kaci Pierce has 202 kills. Natalie Siegel has 809 assists as well.

Nekoliczak said they played Pleasanton during subdistricts last year so Central Valley is kind of familiar with the Bulldogs.

“It’s pretty much their same team as last year. They have six players that are very athletic and have been playing since they were freshmen,” she said. “We’ll have to play well to beat and they are definitely one of the best teams in the state.”

And just like any volleyball coach would way, Nekoliczak said the passing game is going to be key if the Cougars are going to pull off the upset.

“It all comes down to how we are going to pass the ball and play defense,” she said. “That’s a huge part of volleyball. I’ve seen teams who have a lot of talented players with powerful hitters in the past but if you can’t win the defensive or passing game, it’s hard to win games.

“If we’re not passing well, nothing else falls into place. Everything was falling into place Saturday and I think that might have been one of our better matches of the season. We’ll need to play that way Thursday.”

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