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Verdigris volleyball celebrates with its championship plaque after winning the regional championship with sweeps of Daniel Webster and Skiatook on Thursday at the Verdigris Activity Center.

Welcome back to the state tournament, Lady Cardinals.

Third-ranked Verdigris volleyball hosted a regional Thursday, cruising to a pair of sweeps against Daniel Webster and No. 14 Skiatook to advance to the Class 4A state tournament for a second-consecutive year.

In 2020, the Lady Cardinals were swept in the first round by Christian Heritage, a team it had already beaten twice that season. The result left coach Caleb Horton desiring more for his program, and he hopes the players learned from that disappointing experience.

“Last year we went and kind of laid an egg, and this year our goal was to get back and compete,” Horton said. “That’s kind of our theme: ‘We’re back.’ We’re going to go compete this year.”

This year’s bracket hasn’t been released yet, but Horton anticipates an opening-round matchup against Holland Hall. Verdigris defeated the Lady Dutch twice in September, sweeping them 2-0 in the Port City Classic before escaping with a 3-2 victory a week later in the Rejoice Christian Invitational.

That puts the Lady Cardinals in a similar position to last season, but Horton said he and his staff are taking a different approach at practice leading into the state tournament.

“We’re definitely going to have a gameplan for that first round, and we’ve already got a scrimmage set up with Regent and NOAH,” Horton said. “Last year, we were dealing with two starters coming back from COVID the day before we went. We were really out of sorts. This year we’re not going to have kids in quarantine, so I think we’re in a good place mentally. We’re going to go through this next week and be very methodical with how we practice. We have practice plans laid out.

“Beating somebody a third time is going to be really hard, but that’s what we’ll be preparing for.”

After sweeping Daniel Webster with ease in the regional opener, Verdigris began the championship match in a bit of a haze.

Skiatook scored six of the first seven points, and though it was only the first set, Horton was understandably concerned. He delivered a powerful message to the girls during a timeout period, and that seemed to awaken the Lady Cardinals’ potential.

Verdigris went on to win a close first set before handling the Lady Bulldogs with relative ease in the final two frames.

“The first set, we did not lay the hammer down at all,” Horton said. “I was a little nervous about it, and we were losing in the beginning. At 4-1, I called timeout and reminded them exactly what’s going on and where we were and what we were doing and our goals. They went out a little flat, and I don’t like that I had to get onto them. I just reminded them, ‘If we lose, we are done for the year. We spent a year to get to this point of getting through that gateway of winning regionals to get to state, and everything we want is here. We are hosting, we have our fans and we’re just not playing very good.’ Things started going our way, and I think we took the lead at 17 points. It took us a while to get going.

“We just took off on them, and Skiatook just couldn’t get going that last set.”

Morgan Borgstadt, Logan Hamilton, Avery Keeler and Emma Beats were dominant against Skiatook, combining for 33 of the team’s 36 kills and seven of nine blocks.

Borgstadt paced the Lady Cardinals with 14 kills and four blocks while Hamilton had eight kills and two aces and Keeler added seven kills and two blocks. Beats had four kills and a block.

The Webster match featured some different faces, though.

With Verdigris dominating early and often, some younger players had an opportunity to prove themselves in significant varsity action. Among those was Amelia Fernau.

Fernau isn’t a stranger to playing varsity, but her contributions aren’t always recognized on the stat sheet. This time, however, she was a standout force with a team-high seven kills.

Borgstadt and Hamilton were the next highest in the kills count with four each.

“The first set was pretty out of hand, so I decided I should get everybody who doesn’t normally get to playtime in and let them play,” Horton said. “Amelia usually gets playtime, but when you’re overshadowed by the others, her numbers just aren’t as good as Morgan or Logan’s usually. It gave her a chance to get some touches, and she did really well and had some blocks. She had a good day. I also brought in three more girls to play, and two of them had never played varsity, so they got to play some varsity.”

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