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Seniors leave mark on winning program

Published: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 11:31 a.m. CDT • Updated: Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012 11:40 a.m. CDT
Rochelle Means (left) and Chay Blondowski (1) congratulate Shelby Smith (5) for her kill that finished off East Union's 25-16 victory for a 2-1 lead in sets over Grandview Park Baptist Wednesday night. The Defenders rallied for a 3-2 victory.
East Union coach Gail Thatcher shouts instructions to the East Union team as assistant Naomi Sharp and Chay Blondowski look on during an Eagle rally in the third set Wednesday.

Eight years of memories.

And incredible dominance on the court, often against taller, powerful opponents.

That’s what East Union volleyball seniors Amber Friend, Rochelle Means, Shelby Smith and Dusti Carlisle will look back on, after their careers concluded Wednesday in a hotly-contested 3-2 regional final defeat to Grandview Park Baptist.

It’s been an incredible run for the program headed by coach Gail Thatcher and assistant Naomi Sharp. Both were East Union standouts themselves, as Gail Nissen on EU’s state tournament team of 1984, and Naomi Hoffman as a 1998 graduate. Sharp was coached by Thatcher her senior year.

For several years, Thatcher was joined as a co-coach by James Hardy, who provided broadcast coverage Wednesday night for KSIB radio with Ben Walter.

30-win average

It’s a program that has been incredibly consistent. This year’s seniors, who were joined in the regular rotation in last year’s state tourney season by senior Katie Rice, have been a part of the high school program that has gone 121-24 over the past four seasons. That’s an .834 winning percentage.

The past four seasons, starting with this year, have been 30-6, 32-5, 30-7 and 29-6. The period included the school’s third and fourth state tournament appearances in 2010 and 2011, falling to Tripoli and Le Mars Gehlen Catholic in the first round.

What makes East Union volleyball one of the most successful athletic programs in southwest Iowa?

Means, the team’s versatile setter, doesn’t have to look far to see one key reason. Her mother is the head coach.

“We work together as a team, and we’re always determined to get there,” Means said. “I’d have to say our coaches pushed us to go harder, in practice and exceed our goals every time.”

Means, as capable at quick, well-placed attacks and consistent serves as she is at responsibility as the team’s primary setter, said the relatively short Eagle squad has a trademark style of play.

Speedy style

“We try to speed up our game every day, so we can play with the top dogs and be ready for everything,” said the versatile senior who is considering several college volleyball opportunities.

Friend, the team’s kill leader headed toward a career at Graceland University, said team chemistry and hustle were important ingredients.

“We play together so well, and we’re always moving,” Friend said. “We love each other. We’re like a big family.”

Smith, the second-leading attacker for the Eagles, said East Union volleyball players get an early start in learning the fundamentals.

“We start early,” she said. “Our high school coaches start with us in third grade and they’ve been with us the whole way. Our fundamentals, passing and hitting, we’ve done it for years and we had good coaches all the way through. We’re not a tall team at all, but we have multiple weapons. All of our hitters can hit from anywhere.”

Smith intends to concentrate on animal ecology and zoology in college, and does not plan on playing volleyball.

Constant improvement

Carlisle, the team’s quick and athletic libero with a team-high 466 digs, is communicating with Graceland for a volleyball opportunity, along with Friend. She agrees with Smith that an early start in the sport spurred the team’s high school success.

“We started playing in fourth grade and we’ve played AAU since about sixth grade,” Carlisle said. “We never stop playing. We always go to the Simpson volleyball camp together. We have a camp in July. People know we have hitters, but our defense is really good, too. We’re always moving really fast. We’re all short, but we’re quick to the ball.”

Indeed, it’s tough to put a ball to the floor against East Union. Diving stabs to keep the ball alive and alert teammates ready for the next pass are hallmarks of Eagle volleyball.

Thatcher stood proud alongside her disappointed squad after Wednesday’s loss. Leading 2-1 in sets, a third straight trip to state was so close they could almost taste it. That’s what made it tough.

“I can see from all the tears and how they feel that they’re disappointed,” Thatcher said. “They’ve worked hard. They’ve worked hard since fourth grade to be where they’re at. They worked hard in seventh grade and middle school, and I know they’re thoroughly disappointed in that tonight.

“I thought actually as a whole team they stood up and worked hard, never gave up. They tried to work together and fight through every point.”

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