2006 Shenandoah volleyball

The 2006 Shenandoah volleyball team celebrates a Hawkeye 10 Conference championship. From left: Bethany Bray, Kristen Borcherding, Kaitlin Nuckolls, Amberly Heslinga and Toni Ratliff.

Photo courtesy Toni Comstock

Shenandoah and Red Oak have squared off in an athletic competition many times over the years.

When it comes to Shenandoah wins in the rivalry, there may be none bigger than Shenandoah volleyball’s win in the 2006 conference finale.

The Fillies came back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Tigers in what amounted to a Hawkeye 10 Conference championship match at the end of the regular season. It was Senior Night for the Fillies and there wasn’t an empty seat to be found inside Shenandoah High School’s gymnasium.

Current Shenandoah volleyball coach Toni Comstock was Toni Ratliff then and a senior on that team that came back that night to win the program’s only Hawkeye 10 Conference championship. She remembers they tried to treat it like any other match.

“The only thing different about the Red Oak game,” said Comstock, “was it was the game to see who would be the Hawkeye 10 champs and the number of people in the stands. I don’t think there was a spare seat, the student section was all the way to the top.”

Comstock was one of five seniors on that 2006 team that had played together since third grade and ended their incredible run together as conference champions.

Along with Toni (Ratliff) Comstock, the five were Kaitlin (Nuckolls) Allen, Amberly (Heslinga) Carrington, Kristen (Borcherding) Fahey and Bethany (Bray) Randles.

The five agreed the biggest reason for their success was how long they had played together.

“By the time we got to our senior year,” Fahey said, “we were so familiar with each other it was just a matter of putting it all together and to go out there and be successful. The chemistry was pretty special.”

The group started playing together in third grade at a YMCA league in Council Bluffs. They became the Shenandoah Juniors even advancing to national tournaments in junior high.

“It didn’t matter where we were on the floor,” said Comstock, “we were just that comfortable playing with each other. We all contributed and had all the confidence in the world in each other.”

The group reached the varsity level and finished 4-5 in the conference as sophomores in 2004 and then 6-3 as juniors in ’05 before running the table and winning the program’s only conference title as seniors.

“We had some big goals to achieve that year,” said Carrington, “and one was to win the conference championship. (The Hawkeye 10) was a powerhouse conference and we were competing with a lot of top teams, but we could never get across the line. Then in 2006 we finally did it.”

Allen and Comstock shared setting duties in a modified 6-2. Comstock played in the middle when not setting with Randles opposite. Carrington and Fahey were outside hitters.

Kayla Adamson, Kristin Comstock, Lisa Maher and Libby Schlup also saw regular time for the Fillies.

Besides playing together all the time, they also worked quite hard to achieve their goal.

“We would go to the gym at 5:30 every morning and lift weights for an hour before school started,” Randles said. “Then we would practice, go to school, practice again, then drive an hour one way to Omaha for club practice, and then do it all over again. You didn’t have to ask us to be there, we were there no matter what.”

“We put in so many hours in the gym,” added Carrington. “We came in early in the morning in fifth grade. The high school coach would open up the gym for the (high school athletes) and we would come in too. We put in a lot of work on and off the court.”

The 2006 season was Shannon Gilbert’s second as head varsity coach. He had coached the group prior to high school for a couple years, including a trip to junior nationals in Atlanta when they were in the 14-year age group.

“I was just trying to get them to be the best they could be,” said Gilbert. “We focused on defense. They had a really good volleyball IQ and could read hitters.”

Christina Zuruba was Gilbert’s assistant that year and he gave her a lot of credit for the team’s success. Chad Van Houten was a volunteer assistant, which meant the Fillies as many assistants as any other team they played in a day where most schools Shenandoah’s size had just one.

September 12, 2006 was a special day for the group as Carrington and Fahey celebrated their 18th birthday. It was also noteworthy because it was the day the Fillies announced they would be conference contenders with a road win over Lewis Central.

The Titans had won three of the previous five conference titles and were led by Mallory Husz, who went on to star at the University of Iowa. It was the third conference match of the season and both teams were off to a 2-0 start. Lewis Central won the first two sets, but the Fillies fought back to win the final three 25-18, 25-13 and 15-7 to take the win. Past experiences and a strong mental game is what Kaitlin said helped the Fillies that night.

“We had to give everything we had,” Allen said, “and our mental game is what got us through. We learned playing together we couldn’t get down on ourselves. Even if we were down, we couldn’t get down on ourselves otherwise we knew there was no way we would come back.”

The comeback wins would grow to be a bit of a theme for the team. As the season continued, the Fillies dropped the first set at Kuemper, but rallied for a 3-1 win. They were even at one set in Harlan, but won the next two for a 3-1 victory.

Shenandoah kept winning and eventually had just one conference team left to beat, Red Oak. The Fillies entered their conference finale at 8-0 while Red Oak was 7-0 in league play. The Tigers were led by Alex Hanna, who would go on to play at Northwest Missouri State.

Shenandoah dropped the first two sets again, but battled back to force a deciding set. Shenandoah exploded to a 6-0 lead in the fifth and added a 5-0 run to put it out of reach, taking it 15-6 and setting off a massive celebration.

“To end it with Red Oak,” Fahey said, “in front of a standing room only crowd with the support we had for that game (was incredible). We rang the victory bell after that game.”

The win gave the Fillies a ton of momentum heading into the district tournament, but sometimes, as it was in this case, momentum can go away quickly. The Fillies were state-ranked at the end of the regular season, but would go on the road and lose a five-set thriller to that same Red Oak team in the second round of the postseason.

“(Winning conference) was our goal and making it to state was our goal,” said Allen. “Some people thought making it to state was going to be the easier goal than beating all of the Hawkeye 10 teams, so I guess when I look back I’m glad we achieved the harder of the two. Going unbeaten against all of those great teams is unforgettable. Here we are almost 13 years later and we’re still talking about it.”

Gilbert looks back to adjustments he should have made in that postseason loss, specifically having the setters push the ball a little farther away from the net to give Toni and Bethany more of a chance in the middle against Red Oak’s block.

The Fillies lost that final match 19-25, 25-23, 25-21, 22-25 and 12-15. They ended the season with a 25-6 overall record.

“I remember being up in the Red Oak match,” said Randles, “and having it end in heartbreak. It was a tough year and there were a lot of good competitors we had to try to beat. To compete with some of those significant players and to win was a huge accomplishment.”

Another goal for that group was to go play college volleyball, and all five achieved that.

Comstock played volleyball and basketball at Peru State. Carrington went to Dana (Neb.) and was converted into a defensive specialist before the school shut down after her junior year. Randles played at NCAA Division II Missouri-Rolla. Allen didn’t play right out of school at Nebraska, but transferred to Buena Vista after her freshman year and played volleyball and softball there. Fahey played one year at Central in Pella.

Gilbert remembered thinking at the time he wished one of those girls would eventually come back and then he could help them out. Comstock has done that and while Gilbert isn’t currently on staff with his twin daughters about ready for their senior year at Shenandoah, he has done a lot to help out the current program.

None of the other four has gone far. Allen is the next closest. She is the co-head coach of the Clarinda volleyball program for the first time this season after serving as junior high and then freshman coach for the last few years. She is an elementary teacher in the Clarinda district. She is also married and expecting her first child later this year.

Carrington never gave up volleyball. As soon as her playing days were over, she became a club coach and led a team in 2014 that won a national qualifier. She lives in Kansas City with her husband and works at Cerner for their associate learning and development team.

Fahey lives in Independence, Iowa and works for Principal Financial Group. She is married with one boy at home, born earlier this year.

Randles works as a family nurse practitioner in Mound City, Missouri and is married with four daughters. She said volleyball was a big reason she is where she is today.

“I went through nine years of college and have my doctorate as a nurse practitioner,” said Randles. “I had two kids as I went through school and I attribute so much of what I learned to volleyball. What led me to Mound City was wanting to make an impact on a small town like Shenandoah had on me. Shenandoah was a great place to grow up and I am very blessed to call it my hometown.”

Gilbert emphasized the 2006 team as one that was smart, athletic and had great confidence in themselves. Going unbeaten in the Hawkeye 10 was a great accomplishment that he admitted not realizing how big a deal that was until a few years later.

“They blocked well,” said Gilbert. “They were consistent hitters and consistent servers. They passed well and believed in each other. They were determined not to lose.”

The 2006 Shenandoah volleyball team didn’t lose many matches, none in conference play. They achieved that goal because they worked hard, stayed positive and had fun.

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