Editor's Note: “A Look at Times Gone By” is an in-depth look at weekly Times Gone By entries compiled since 2015. These articles will appear in each edition as local teams anticipate new seasons, whenever they should resume.
First-year Fort Calhoun volleyball head coach Kris Martinsen set modest goals for 1989.
The team was coming off of a 2-18 record the previous campaign.
“We have eight seniors and 11 lettermen back this year,” she said in Enterprise Media Group's Fall Sports Preview section. “That means good leadership for us. Our goal is to win 50 percent of our games.”
FCHS lost its opener to Arlington 15-8, 15-13, making it seem as if even those goals may be hard to attain.
Instead, the Pioneers improved and strung together a late three-match winning streak, which set school history that has yet to be matched. The 1989 Fort Calhoun volleyball team went from 2-18 to the NSAA state tournament.
“We were completely surprised,” Wendy (Meyer) Allely said Wednesday.
Martinsen's two-a-day practices without air conditioning — and 80s music blaring — paid off in the end.
“It was memorable,” Tracy (Givens) Baxter noted.
District and state
While the Blair volleyball team completed an unbeaten regular season and garnered headlines, the Fort Calhoun squad played to an average record without much press. A win against Omaha Roncalli earned a student-written update with a 3-5 record noted, but the win-loss mark disappeared from later reports.
“Our season was terrible,” Baxter said.
So, when the district tournaments came around, Blair's prospects were high for a state tournament run, while the Pioneers' were understated in the local newspaper. Predictably, the Bears would go onto the Class B state bracket with their perfect record intact, but, unpredictably, they had Washington County company in Lincoln.
First up, Fort Calhoun bested their district's No. 1 team, Bennington, 15-8 and 15-10. Meyer went 7-for-7 on attacks, while Patty Vacek was 8-for-8. Ali Tinkham's serve percentage was high as she went 15-for-17, while Laurie Johnson and Givens hit 100-percent.
The first-round victory not only moved the Pioneers onto the second round, but gave them confidence.
“We knew if we could get by Bennington we had a good chance at winning districts,” coach Martinsen said in a tournament recap.
From there, Tinkham led FCHS to a rematch victory against the Arlington Eagles, 11-15, 15-7, 15-11. The sophomore had 17 kills, while Vacek was 14-for-14 on serves.
The win produced an attractive finals opportunity. The Pioneers played Yutan at Dana College with a trip to state on the line. In eight previous tries during the district playoffs, the orange and black had come up empty.
It didn't against Yutan.
Fort Calhoun battled back-and-forth with the Chieftains, but earned a 15-6, 15-17, 15-13 win, completing an unlikely three-match run to the state tournament. Givens had sprained her ankle and watched the end of the match with a foot in a bucket, but it was still special.
The Pioneers' hometown responded with state decorations going up in windows across town. By game day, special plans were set for their sendoff. A pep rally preceded a planned caravan of cars to Lincoln East High School for FCHS' first-round match against Burwell.
That's where the run ended as the Pioneers fell 15-5 and 15-7.
“We had never played against a team with such powerful hitters,” Martinsen said.
Still, the first-year coach was proud of her squad's efforts to make history.
“The team kept their poise and played with a positive attitude,” she said. “This has been a good experience for the players as well as the community.”
Blair, meanwhile, fell short of the championship round, too, falling to Sidney in the semifinals.
Today, Allely doesn't remember much of the run to state back when the Fort Calhoun roster read, “Wendy Meyer.” She just recalls her teammates.
Givens, now Baxter, was her practice partner and one of her best friends. There were several seniors, but the “super sophomores” were Vacek and Tinkham who supplied the powerful spikes.
Allely's coach, meanwhile, was “tough,” but the team liked her.
“Young, fun and aggressive,” Baxter said to describe Martinsen.
In the end, the 1989 volleyball season was far from perfect. Baxter estimates the team only won “seven or eight” games, but it also accomplished something no Fort Calhoun team has since. It reached the state tournament, inspiring a town for a trip to Lincoln after a 3-0 streak through its Class C1 District.