KEARNEY — Volleyball runs in their blood.
Their mothers played and coached. They watched others play and win. They honed their own talents from the age when they were too young to remember.
And they won.
Michaela Mestl and Bailey Sokolowski, Kearney Catholic’s most effective weapons on the school’s most effective team, share the Kearney Hub Volleyball Player of the Year award after leading the Stars to a 36-0, state championship season.
“When we were like 3-years-old and we sat here and watched these girls — or any high school girls or any college girls — we would say, ‘that’s who we want to be. We want to be winning state. We want to be playing in college.’ And we knew we could do it,” Mestl said.
Yes, they did it.
They beat Lincoln Pius X, the team that finished third in Class A. They beat Waverly, the team that finished third in Class By. And they beat perennial power Columbus Scotus in the Class C1 state final — a thrilling, five-set match that saw the Stars battle back from a 2-1 deficit and facing their third straight state finals disappointment.
“To win the championship in three would be amazing,” Sokolowski said. “But I think it was good for us to lose those sets. It showed everybody our drive and mentality for the game, and just the strength we can have.”
“We didn’t quit on ourselves, on our coaches or on each other,” Mestl said. “It was great to know we can overcome that together and come out and take those last two.”
The win capped a magical season for the Stars in which they lost only five sets. They dominated by assaulting opponents’ defenses rotation after rotation with firepower no one could match.
Sokolowski finished with a team-high 300 kills and 65 blocks. Mestl added 282 kills, 27 blocks and 54 ace serves. Sokolowski led the Hub Territory in hitting efficiency with an eye-popping .495 mark. Mestl was fourth at .392.
Their coach, Kris Conner, says they’re both hard-working, inspirational players.
“As senior leaders, you couldn’t ask for much more,” she said.
And as talented players, “they probably max out on the charts … both on different categories.”
Sokolowski, at 6-foot-1, dominated the front row with good jumping ability and speed.
Mestl, the Class C state champion in the 100-meter dash last spring, has unquestioned speed and quickness and surprising jumping ability despite being 5-foot-6. She played all six rotations and expects to start her college career as a defensive specialist.
“Bailey — to get that type of an athlete that has the height, the jumping ability, the coordination — doesn’t come too often. She has a physique for playing at a high level,” Conner said. “Michaela is a dynamic player and just a fierce competitor. To have her athletic ability combined with those makes her an outstanding athlete.”
Mestl, who also won the Hub Territory player of the Year award as a sophomore, played all six rotations and “was the backbone of our defense,” Conner said. Sokolowski scored kill after kill despite the other team’s defensive efforts.
The 1-2 punch of Mestl and Sokolowski has been too much for teams to handle for the past three years. In that span, the Stars posted a 94-7 record with Mestl providing the scoring blow on 1,099 points — two more than Sokolowski.
Mestl’s totals include 886 kills, 151 ace serves and 62 blocks.
Sokolowski, a University of Nebraska at Kearney recruit, scored 853 kills, 26 ace serves and 218 blocks.
Those kills are what both players say they enjoy about volleyball.
“Blocking is huge. It stops the other team. It helps our defense. It’s the first line of defense,” Sokolowski said. “But hitting is just fun. It’s fun getting up and getting that big kill.”
Mestl turned down NCAA Division I offers for the opportunity to play in the front row and be an attacker at Division II Wayne State. But she really enjoys ever aspect of every position.
“We do that in practice where we ask, ‘Coach can I set?’ or, ‘I want to be the libero this game.’ I love to play defense,” she said. “It’s almost as satisfying to get somebody on the other side of the net that’s just crushing it and you’re digging it up, as if you get a stuff block, or a kill, or an ace serve.
“It’s just all fun.”
Winning the state championship proved to be the most fun of all.
After two runner-up finishes, the Stars were ready for a title. They traveled throughout the summer to play tougher opponents and get better.
They beefed up their schedule to prepare for the pressures of the state tournament.
And the won and won.
“Toward the end we started to feel a little bit of the pressure,” Mestl said. “When we were getting tired, we started to realize there was a huge X on our back and people were out to get us and it could be the end. Then there was a lot of thought about it.”
Then came the state final and a possible loss staring them in the face.
“From the summer, I thought we could do this and this could be the year,” Sokolowski said. “By the fourth set, when we were down five points, I was thinking, ‘It’s going to slip away.’
“I think it shows how much power our team has and how much drive and the dependency we have on each other that we got through it. We won those next two sets and won them with authority.”
If it had been a fairy tale or a movie, the match would have ended with Mestl delivering an ace serve. But that was what happened.
“I had been serving them deep and it was working for me, and I decided to change it up and see if I could get them on the short ball. … And I missed my serve. I was so mad at myself. I missed my very last serve.”
Her anger didn’t last long.
Columbus Scotus had been serving the ball deep, too. And the ensuing serve came Mestl’s way.
“I felt I really knew my court in those last few sets. … It was above my shoulders and usually when it’s above my shoulders, I let it go,” Mestl said.
The serve went long and the Stars had their title.
“Thirty-six and 0. Nothing more you could ask for,” Mestl said.