Pioneer’s do-it-all mentality leads to Cass County Tournament title
Caston beats Logansport, falls to Lady Panthers in title match
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
ROYAL CENTER — Whether it is hitting or blocking, serving or setting, digging or passing, players on the Pioneer volleyball team trained during the offseason to be skilled in multiple facets of the game.
Their work paid off in a 25-12, 25-18 win over Caston in the Cass County Tournament title match at the Pioneer auxiliary gym Saturday night. Pioneer improved to 2-0 in winning the tournament for the eighth straight year. They beat Lewis Cass 25-13, 25-8 earlier Saturday to reach the final.
Caston fell to 1-1. They beat Logansport 25-10, 25-17 earlier Saturday to get to the final.
Pioneer lists 10 players on their varsity roster, including two seniors. Mackenzie Rogers, Keirsten Nies and Blair Grigsby are all capable setters, and Rogers and Nies are among the team’s top hitters.
Junior Adeline Cripe started at libero, and senior Kaitlin Weldy helped in the back row.
Mandee Weisenburger, Kylie Attinger, Brooklyn Borges and Elizabeth Rance can play both in the middle and on the opposite sides.
With so many multiple setters and hitters, that gives Pioneer options. The challenge will be getting to a higher level as increased enrollment has bumped Pioneer up to Class 2A for the next two years. Coach Rod Nies said there is “absolutely no doubt” that Pioneer can compete in Class 2A.
“We’ve got a really good team here,” coach Rod Nies said. “If we can put it together, we’re going to be dangerous in 2A, I think. Right now, we’ve got girls that are playing out of position that aren’t used to it, so tonight’s the first night we got a good rotation. I felt like all the girls were being used. I can go nine deep basically.”
Leading 18-12 in Game 1, Pioneer scored the final seven points to close the game out. Rance had two aces during the run, including one on a serve that clipped off the net and fell over. Weisenburger had two kills, and Keirsten Nies went down the opposite sideline for a kill.
Weisenburger showed the ability to hit crosscourt or down the line.
She said she has to be more of a leader as a senior and bring the team’s energy up.
“Rod is building our practices,” Weisenburger said. “For his program, he wants us to be all-around players. Every girl on the court can do everything. So when we get into any trouble at all, anybody can play any spot, and we’re all versatile.”
Nies said he made fewer substitutions Saturday than during a typical match last fall.
“We had a lot of kids last year,” coach Nies said. “We had like 24 on the whole team. That’s great numbers, but then it’s trying to keep them happy and getting the playing time. We had five seniors last year, and it’s tough to get everybody in there when you’ve just got six spots to rotate in there. When you have less players, it’s easier to get in a good rotation, but then you’ve got to fear having an injury. … (But) it gives the girls more playing time, and they're able to get into a flow more.”
He said they even tried practicing a three-setter system with Rogers, Keirsten Nies and Grigsby all on the floor at the same time.
“I was going to run a three-middle, three-setter attack and really try to confuse the other teams, but it confused my team more than anything,” coach Nies quipped. “So we kind of put that on the back burner. That’s something we’re probably going to look at really heavy next year because I’ve got three really good setters, and they can all hit.”
The Lady Comets graduated all-Hoosier North player Maddi Smith as well as Abby Williamson from last year’s 21-win squad. In addition, senior frontliner Tayler Shafer missed the tournament due to being on a missionary trip.
Like Pioneer, Caston also ran a multiple-setter system with senior Delaney Lowry and junior Annie Harsh quarterbacking the team and senior Bailey Harness and juniors Isabel Scales, Macee Hinderlider, Alivia Paul and Alexa Finke being asked to terminate.
Junior Addison Zimpleman is the libero, and senior Kinzie Mollenkopf is a defensive specialist.
Caston scored the first three points of Game 2, but a 7-1 Pioneer run gave the Lady Panthers an 11-6 lead, and Caston coach Gina Hierlmeier called timeout after a Grigsby kill.
Caston would cut the deficit within a point at 13-12, 14-13, 15-14, 16-15 and 17-16, and they still hung within 20-18 before a Borges kill, a Grigsby kill and a Nies stuff block kicked off a match-closing 5-0 run.
“When we compete and we do things more consistently, we’re going to continue to get better,” Hierlmeier said. “I’m not worried about where we’re at. We’ve got to make some growth in some areas, but we’re going to play a lot of great volleyball, and we’ll see them down the road again. … We’re extremely athletic. We talk about that a lot of times too. I’m not worried about our athleticism or our strength. We’ve just got to become better volleyball players in the sense of not only the basics of the game but understanding the game when we’re on the floor and how to make adjustments and communicating those adjustments and having that communication between the six players on the team. And that will come with time.”
The tournament marked the coaching debut for Hierlmeier at Caston. Hierlmeier, who is also in her third year as Caston’s athletic director, had not coached a high school volleyball team since she was at West Central in 2009.
Hierlmeier is also the former girls basketball coach at West Central, Culver and Mishawaka Marian and was the athletic director at Tippecanoe Valley from 2018-20.
“It’s great,” Hierlmeier said. “If you would have told me that the sport I would come back to to coach first would have been volleyball instead of basketball, I probably would have told you that you were crazy. … A lot of the motivation for me to come back in the gym is the group of girls that we have. They’re great kids to be around. They work hard. They bring a great energy into the gym, so I’m really enjoying myself so far, and I think it’s going to be a great season.”
Lewis Cass beat Logansport 25-21, 25-22 in the third-place match.
The Pioneer volleyball team defeated Lewis Cass and Caston to win the Cass County Tournament at the Pioneer Auxiliary Gym Saturday.