The rise of Lansing's Vanderwerff, Capsules on all sub-state brackets
The tale of Lansing High School’s Amelia Vanderwerff, in some ways, resembles that of Ben Wilson, although seemingly with a much better ending.
Wilson went from a nondescript junior varsity basketball player in Chicago back in the 1980s to the No. 1 amateur player in just about 18 months before his life tragically ended. See ESPN’s 30-for-30 program titled “Benji” for the full story.
Where Vanderwerff’s story resembles Wilson’s is the rise from an average player who made up part of a roster to suddenly being a volleyball force to reckoned with. Her sudden showing as one of the best players in the state in such a short time may not be as meteoric as Wilson’s, but the simple change in narrative from “Amelia? Who’s that?” to “Who’s that girl?” is no different than Wilson’s 32 years ago.
As the Class 5A sub-state volleyball playoffs begin (see capsules below) this weekend, Vanderwerff and the Lansing Lions will take the court in hopes of beginning a journey toward a state title run once again.
Vanderwerff plays middle blocker and is a big part in those hopes.
Who would have thought it only six months ago?
So good, so fast, so young? Call her, ‘Baby Roof?’
Lansing High head coach Julie Slater coached Vanderweff at the club level for three years before the young lady’s arrival with the Lions’ program.
She left Slater’s club team – Northeast Mavs – to play at Power last offseason. Power is one of the top clubs in the region if not the country. The Vanderwerff family only made the move after Slater impressed upon them that Amelia had to make the move.
“She went from (age 12) deer in the headlights, to (age 13) better, but still a bit of deer in the headlights, to (age 14) solid,” Slater said. “She got invited to play as a practice player (at Power) and was told she would never play, but she could practice. I said, ‘You go,’ because it’s one of the top programs around. A month in, she’s on the court playing, so she grew in that short time in her volleyball. She stepped it up.
“I saw the potential. She is so intuitive and that’s nothing you can teach. I knew she would just grow and the (move to Power) was a huge benefit. I knew she’d (handle it). I saw the athleticism and the intuitiveness that she had. Her God-given gift is her blocking and now she has become an offensive threat.”
Vanderwerff joined Lansing teammates, juniors Rachel Fairbanks and Kennedy Ferris, at Power, with the former having a similar jump in play after joining the club.
“I was super excited because Rachel and Kennedy play there and I looked up to Rachel because she is really good,” Vanderwerff said. “Rachel told me I’d get better if I was on a really good team.”
Vanderwerff was going to Power to be practice fodder for the top girls only to become one of those players she was supposed to take a backseat to.
“(Power staff members) Gwen Pike and Danielle Stoll kind of pushed me and I would go to practice an hour before and work extra off the court to get up to their level,” Vanderwerff said. “My mom was kind of leery if I should go or stay (with Northwest Mavs) because she wasn’t sure if I was going to play or not.
“One of our middles was injured and they said they were going to pull me up. Half of the (club) season, I played middle and the other half they moved me to the right side because they liked my blocking better out there. I was there two months (before getting into the rotation).”
The older Lions admitted that her rise was a bit unexpected but very welcome.
“She’s been playing with my sister (Caitlyn) since the seventh grade, so I’ve watched them all grow up and I think Amelia has grown up to be a great player,” Lansing senior Courtney Rexroat said. “She is still getting better. She has a great attitude, she’s very coachable and she wants to be there and wants to play. She will do anything she can to be good.
She was on my sister’s club team the year before – and she was good – then she didn’t come back to the team and went to Power. I didn’t see her all summer, then she came back for tryouts (in August) and I was like ‘Dang, she’s good.’ Now, I believe she is one of the best middle blockers in the state.”
“Amelia definitely makes it easier for the back row and her big block really sets the defense,” Lansing senior Lacey Angello said. “I don’t think she realizes how big it really is. Coming from last year’s perspective, I didn’t really think about her at all. It wasn’t like ‘Wow, we have a really good girl on JV.’ This year she is beastly.”
Her offense has also become quite the go-to of choice. Vanderwerff’s ability to terminate in the attack has exploded. Along with her 32 solo blocks and 74 total blocks (along with dozens of influential touches), Vanderwerff has recorded 141 kills with a .396 hitting average – second best behind Fairbanks, among the regular attack options for the Lions.
“With her, it was difficult to learn what she liked, how she liked it and what she wanted to run,” Rexroat said. “Now we are clicking more. We work in practice and talk to each other and she tells me what she needs. It’s just connecting.”
Her classmates are proud of Vanderwerff’s development as a player and the kind of person she is.
“Amelia and I have been passing partners since seventh grade,” sophomore Jill Carlson said. “In eighth grade she was good, then freshman year we passed together. She was a lot better than she thought she was. She didn’t have the confidence. Then this year, she just realized she was good and we all believed in her. I think Power took her and decided to make her amazing.
“Amelia is the nicest, most caring person I have ever met and I can say that with my full heart.”
“I agree with that,” Slater said. “Have you seen how this team has embraced her?”
Vanderwerff may be considered quiet and humble, but she still has a fire to compete, thanks in part to her DNA as her mother, Kelley, played basketball at UNC-Wilmington.
“My mom and dad are always telling me to be more aggressive and be angry,” Vanderwerff said. “I am always trying to get better. … I don’t want to waste my time and not get better. Working hard off the court really pays off. Next, I want to get better at my hitting and my serving.
“I want to go to college and play. I just want to play.”
Class 5A at Leavenworth High School
2 p.m.: No. 1 LANSING (31-6) vs. No. 8 Topeka Highland Park (3-31)
Following: No. 4 Shawnee Heights (18-18) vs. No. 5 Topeka Seaman (17-20)
Final after both matches
2 p.m.: No. 2 KC Washington (21-9) vs. No. 7 KC FL Schlagle (6-21)
Following: No. 3 KC Wyandotte (15-9) vs. No. 6 LEAVENWORTH (12-24)
Final after both matches
With five NCAA Division I-recruited talents in the starting lineup, the Lansing High School volleyball team could arguably be the most talented group in Class 5A.
They opened the season 20-1, including a 20-match win streak following a tense, two-point loss in the deciding set at state power St. James Academy to open the season.
From there, the schedule stiffened and the record dipped a bit as the Lions went 11-5 over the last few weeks of the season heading into sub-state play.
On Saturday, they begin their quest for a potential Class 5A state title run with a 2 p.m. match against Topeka Highland Park at Leavenworth High School.
The host Pioneers come in with a five-win improvement from a year ago and will play as the No. 6 seed and face KC Wyandotte following a match between Washington and Schlagle.
Lansing and Leavenworth have golden opportunities to qualify for a trip to Topeka and the state finals next week.
“We are playing well and we will earn our trip to state and it will prepare us for when we get there,” Lansing head coach Julie Slater said. “Our two seniors (Lacey Angello and Courtney Rexroat) are both key players and we expect a lot from them.
“All of our players play such an important role. We had an incredible season and had great team chemistry.”
Assuming the Lions win their opening contest, their next match will be much more challenging, facing either the defending champions, Shawnee Heights, or Topeka Seaman.
LVHS approaches its opener against third-seeded KC Wyandotte as potentially the favorite.
“We are preparing to play with complete confidence in our ability to execute our game,” Pioneer head coach Cassandra Rockers said. “We are focused on our goal and determined to reach it. We ended the regular season on a positive note with two wins against Paola and Bishop Ward. We’ve been focusing on improving small aspects of our game where we struggle – blocking, serve receive and terminating the ball.”
The Pioneers, who will have gone nine days since their last action, will be without senior outside hitter Hannah Wagner, who fractured her ankle after landing on a foot on the opposite side of the net.
“She has been one of our most consistent hitters this season,” Rockers said of Wagner. “We are definitely going to miss her on the court, but we have some very capable players stepping up to fill her shoes.”
Randi Raymos, Ayden Bartlett and Jessica Sachen lead the team in kills, assists and digs, respectively, and there is plenty of pieces around them to make a state run.
“Our season has had many ups and downs,” Rockers said. “Our goal all season has been progress. It can’t always be about winning, especially when you’re trying to build a program. It’s about accountability and creating good habits while breaking bad habits. Our record does not reflect the amount of progress this team has made. We play a tough schedule, but mentality was our biggest opponent this year. They’re ready to showcase their hard work, effort and dedication on Saturday.”
Class 4A-I at Atchison High School
2 p.m.: No. 1 Atchison (24-10) vs. No. 4 Tonganoxie (14-18)
Following: No. 2 BASEHOR-LINWOOD (22-14) vs. No. 3 KC Piper (18-17)
Final after both matches
Basehor-Linwood has taken a big step this season with a blend of senior veterans and a host of talented underclassmen, resulting in a 22-14 record.
Saturday, they head to Atchison, but could be considered favorites to win two matches and head to the state finals.
“We are playing well,” BLHS head coach Amy Irvin said. “We are a strong team and have really been working on pushing through and not allowing our opponents to score consecutive points on us.
“We are also focusing on the now and not thinking of the past or into the future.”
It hasn’t hurt that the Bobcats have had plenty of contributions from all points on the floor.
“I could pick a different highlight performer each game,” Irvin said. “I play four people all-around – Riley Tinder, Jaylah McPherson, Katie Yankovich and Ava Seaton – so we depend on them a lot. Jenna Zydio will be a big factor in the game due to her blocking and hitting. Her personality is contagious. We have great leaders and each player feeds off of each other.”
A state run could be the icing on the cake.
“We have had a very successful season,” Irvin said. “With playing only eight girls, there is not any confusion as to whose job is what. The girls mesh well together and we are hopeful that if we play our game and play hard we will continue our season next week.”
Class 3A at Horton High School
2 p.m.: No. 1 Nemaha Central (37-3) vs. No. 8 Hiawatha (2-28)
Following: No. 4 Horton (11-23) vs. No. 5 PLEASANT RIDGE (9-23)
2 p.m.: No. 2 Maur Hill-Mount Academy (15-18) vs. No. 7 Riverside (4-26)
Following: No. 3 ACCHS (12-18) vs. No. 6 Sabetha (9-24)
Semifinals after four matches complete
Final after semifinals
Pleasant Ridge entered the new season with Joy Ewert as head coach. She was hired only a few weeks before the season began and made the best of things with a young unit.
The Rams finished the season 9-23 and now start the second stage of the campaign at sub-state with a match at Horton.
“I feel good about this matchup because we have played Horton twice, beating them both times,” Ewert said. “We are still an up and down team. We have moments when we can hang with the best and moments we can't play with the worst. The worst part of the team is our heads. We are a fantastic team when we are ahead and have the momentum, but as soon as that switches and the other team scores a couple of points, we go down fast.
“Our passing is still a main concern. It is not where I want it to be at this time. With that being off, we are not utilizing all our hitters like we should. Hanna Forge, our setter, went out with a knee injury this week so I don't see her playing Saturday. That will hurt us, but we are working with Madison Ewert to fill in that position.”
Freshman Bailey Ko, the team’s libero, has registered 650 digs and is ranked highly in that category. Montanna Adams added 438 digs and was one of the team’s better hitters with 120 kills.
Now it is about getting all of the parts of the puzzle together at the right time.
“Our season has been all over the place,” coach Ewert said. “Our team has not reached their full potential. They are a hard group to get to believe in themselves. We can have an outstanding game playing like champions and turn around and look like we haven't seen a ball. We haven't been able to find that consistency or leader.”