Sheridan Zarda didn’t expect St. Michael the Archangel to become a volleyball power overnight.
After all, she was a first-year head coach and forming a brand-new team at a brand-new high school from girls who hadn’t played much together.
“I really didn’t have a timetable,” Zarda said. “I knew that no matter what’s going to happen, I’m here to help girls become more confident in themselves and be better leaders in our school.”
If Zarda had made a timetable, she certainly wouldn’t have had St. Michael going to the state tournament during her first year.
And she would have been wrong.
St. Michael, despite entering the postseason with a sub-.500 record, reached the Class 2 volleyball Final Four — which takes place Friday, Oct. 27, and Saturday, Oct. 28, in Cape Girardeau, Mo. — and, in doing so, became the first state-tournament team in the school’s brief history.
“Our team has, throughout the year, continued to surprise me by how hard they want to work,” Zarda said. “And I knew, if they wanted to work hard and they wanted to go get it, they could go get it.”
Still, Zarda — a former standout at St. James Academy in Lenexa, who went on to play for Nebraska and Kansas State — knew she had her work cut out for her at St. Michael.
The Guardians only had two seniors and, aside from nine players from last year’s squad at now-closed O’Hara, few of them had been on the same team before.
“A lot of them didn’t know each other,” Zarda said. “A lot of them were trying to just fit in and find their place.”
St. Michael lost four of its first five matches and stood 3-8 as it reached the heart of its schedule, but Zarda saw progress even as the Guardians took their lumps against power programs like St. Pius X, Notre Dame de Sion and Pleasant Hill.
“We just congealed,” St. Michael senior middle hitter Ebele Echendu said. “At the beginning of the year, we had new people from all these schools, and it was like, ‘Oh, we have to make this work.’ Throughout the season we just worked on how to mesh together and, as we played these teams, we really worked how to bring what we practice into the game.”
Slowly, Echendu, who ranks second on the team with 124 kills, and her teammates became more comfortable and confident together on the floor. They started to mesh with setter Cali Bokenkroger, a freshman who helped sophomore Abby Salanski register a team-best 167 kills and two others top 100 kills.
As the regular season ended, St. Michael was an unimpressive 13-14-2. Heading off to the Class 2, District 14 tournament at Barstow, the Guardians didn’t have state-tournament aspirations.
But once there, St. Michael beat University Academy in the first round then pulled their first surprise by beating No. 1 seed Adrian in two sets.
Next came a three-set victory against Summit Christian Academy in the final, a team they lost to earlier in the season.
During sectionals, St. Michael faced St. Joseph-LeBlond, which had only lost three times all season, but the Guardians pulled out a 25-21, 25-21 victory on LeBlond’s home floor.
That set up a showdown with Lexington in the quarterfinals for a trip to state.
There were some butterflies at first, but not enough to keep the Guardians from a dominating 25-15, 25-18 victory.
“I think they might have had a little bit of nerves, but, as soon as they hit the court, you could see the fire, you could see the passion, you could see the drive to play the game,” Zarda said.
Now, St. Michael (18-14-2) will battle St. Pius X of Festus, Strafford, and Hermann for the Class 2 state title at the Show Me Center.
After playing round-robin matches Friday, St. Michael will play for the first or third place on Saturday — and the Guardians, as unexpected as this trip may be, aren’t just happy to be there.
“We’re a go-getter team,” Echendu said. “Since we’re here, we might as well just try to play our best and take first place.”