SLUH stays steady in winning volleyball championship

Lisajohnston@archstl.org

At first there were five, then one.

St. Louis University High School was the one remaining Catholic school of the five that entered the semifinals of the Missouri Boys Volleyball State Tournament's two classifications.

SLUH faced Lafayette in the Class 4 finals and won in three sets, taking its eighth state championship, moving past St. John Vianney High School for the most championships in the classification.

In the Class 4 semifinals, SLUH defeated Vianney 25-20, 25-23. Lafayette defeated De Smet Jesuit High School 28-26, 25-23. In the Class 3 semifinals, Parkway Central defeated St. Mary’s 15-25, 25-14, 25-22. Affton defeated Bishop DuBourg 25-15, 25-18. Affton won the Class 3 title over Parkway Central 19-25, 25-21, 27-25.

SLUH jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first set of the title game and never trailed, winning it 25-17. A spike by junior Leo Henken put SLUH up 21-15 and gave his team the jolt it needed to cruise to the victory. Lafayette gained a lead in the second set, but SLUH hung tough, tying the score four times before taking a 7-6 lead. Lafayette soon went ahead again. SLUH took over, going up 18-15 before five straight points by Lafayette. Another surge by SLUH put it ahead briefly before Lafayette gained the upper hand and a 26-24 win.

The seesaw game was not to be repeated in the third set, as SLUH took the upper hand early and never looked back. The lead grew to 17-9, with Leo Henken, sophomore Matt Coplen and seniors Shawn Hughes and George Huhmann getting key points. After a missed attempt at match point, senior David Corley notched the winning point and the celebration began.

The championship is the second in a row for SLUH, with both coming against Lafayette. SLUH coach Jeff Cheak said Lafayette came out strong, especially serving, in the second set. "They put a lot of pressure on us. The difference between (sets) two and three was that we got a little better read on where they were serving, and we were a little more aggressive in our mentality of serve-and-receive. Having Leo (Henken) attack early, it really set a tone and we were able to pull away."

SLUH has a lot of respect for Lafayette, which was ranked #1, Cheak said, naming Nick LaVanchy, Kade Bontrager and Alex Gettinger as among the top players in the state. "We knew they weren't going to go away easy, and that second set was no surprise," he said.

The season prepared the team for the playoffs, particularly with the strength of the Metro Catholic Conference, the coach said.

Huhmann said the team's serves were on target, but the serve-receive was the difference-maker in the game. The team's captains, Hughes, Corley and Paul Henken, make a difference in keeping the team stable and picking them up after a mistake. Also, he said, "we don't worry about the future. We play every game as if it's the last game."

Paul Henken, a senior who was a key player on last year's team, had to set this one out because of a knee injury. But he was as enthused about the win as anyone.

He gave a thoughtful review of the season, which started out with his injury and an injury to Huhmann. "We're a hard-working team. We knew last year what it took to win and kept practicing the same way. It's a mentality of getting better every day. More of a comparison of ourselves in the past as opposed to the team we're playing across the net. There were times we didn't play our best during the season, but working through that builds character as a team."

Even in the state finals, he said, the team had a few mental lapses but overcame them. "It's a testament to our team and the coaching staff. They always kept us motivated."

Huhmann said he's passionate about volleyball because "it's high-speed. You have to think really fast, move really fast. I just fell in love with it the first time I played it."

His faith enables him to realize that there's more to life than volleyball. And it keeps him stable on the court. Henken said the team trusts each other, a concept that comes from several sources, including its spirituality. Faith is intertwined throughout SLUH's sports programs, Cheak said, with his volleyball team following that tradition.

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