ALTOONA — With an array of graduation loss of some big time players following the 2016 season — some seniors who had led Altoona to consecutive conference titles and two state appearances in their careers — the Railroaders volleyball team was forced to go young.
In 2017, coach Elissa Upward had to play a mix of freshmen and sophomores on the varsity squads while McDonell and Regis were riding senior-heavy teams to deep playoff runs. The Macks, who ultimately prevailed, and Ramblers duked it out all year for the conference’s top spot, dethroning Altoona from the top.
With key players coming back from other Western Cloverbelt teams this fall, and with Altoona still being fairly young, the Rails weren’t necessarily the preseason favorites headed into the season.
But the team found an identity and came back in several matches throughout the year.
And poof. Altoona finished the year in a similar spot. On top of the WCC with a perfect 7-0 record.
“We needed to grow up fast and play,” senior Lydia Berseth said. “Everybody had to, kind of.”
Luckily for Altoona, the sophomores who gained valuable experience showed poise beyond their years and carried that over into the fall.
Combine that with the veteran experience of seniors who played either at state or won a conference title early in their careers, and it created the winning formula in the WCC.
“We have a lot of leadership, even in the younger kids too,” senior Izzy Hendricks said. “We had some sophomores who played last year that have experience. It helps that, I mean our seniors are big leaders, but it helps that our younger kids are big leaders too. It means everyone is in it.”
The Rails made their maturity stand out in two different conference matches.
Against a red-hot Fall Creek team that was ranked in the top-10 in Division 3 at the time of the contest on Sept. 13, Altoona found itself down near match point in all three sets.
It rallied on its home floor to win all three. It was especially impressive considering the team had a losing record at the time.
“That was a big confidence booster,” Hendricks said.
Another came 12 days later on Sept. 25.
On the road and down 2-0 to last year’s Division 3 state runners up, Regis, Altoona rallied to win the next three and put itself in the drivers seat for the crown.
The Railroaders have shown late in the season that they can stand up when their backs are against the wall.
“They are incredibly calm,” Upward said. “They do not get frazzled easily. They have a lot of heart.”
While those pair of matches certainly stand out for Upward, she knew she had something to work with when she had to plug different players in different spots of the lineup due to injury or whatever the case may have been.
No matter the position, it seemed like someone was there to accept the challenge.
“We’ve had our fair share of injuries and people having to sit out and rest out where we’ve had to move players to different positions,” Upward said. “Seeing that group be so adaptable on the fly is really promising. It makes you feel, as a coach, that you’re able to put any kid on the floor and be comfortable.”
It sure helped that the team learned how to play with one another last season and developed a working relationship despite differences in age.
“The chemistry is there,” senior Karly Maurina said. “We know how to play with each other and work through ups and downs and back each other up.”
The playoffs have arrived, and Altoona is a No. 5 seed in Division 2. Its road to a sectional is difficult enough. It faces 12th-seed Somerset on Tuesday, and if the seedings hold true, the Railroaders would have to square off against fourth-seed Osceola on Thursday.
Then, if they make it out of that, a date with No. 1 Bloomer is more than likely in the regional final.
Altoona exceeded expectations in the WCC.
Upward is just looking for a similar effort in the postseason. And that effort is 100 percent at all times.
“They know what the expectations are,” Upward said. “And that’s to play the best you can play every time out.”