THOMPSON, N.D.-Taylor Zak's hitting numbers are down by a significant margin compared to a year ago. But the Thompson High School senior volleyball player sees that as a good thing.
"To me, that's a great thing,'' Zak said. "It shows that we have more balance. Mixing it up makes it harder for teams to defend us.''
Balance has been the theme for the veteran Tommies, who take a 36-1-1 record and the No. 2 seed to the Class B state tournament beginning Thursday in Minot.
Thompson has five players with 160 or more kills. By comparison, last season's state runner-up team had only three players who reached the 160-kill mark, and all three of those-Zak, Macy Jordheim and Izzy Shirek-had more than 200.
"We usually don't have this happening,'' Thompson coach Lisa Strand said of this season's balanced attack. "It's a unique year. The hitters all have the ability to hit the ball hard and from different spots on the court. It's nice to have the flexibility to set any one of them anywhere.''
Zak leads the offense with 329 kills; she finished with 455 last season. Jordheim, a junior, is second with 253 kills, down 46 from her 2017 total. "They're actually playing better than last year,'' Strand said. "But we're able to spread the sets out more.''
Zak was an all-state pick last season and Jordheim was an all-region pick. With the team's balance and their reputations, they've become decoys as well as finishers.
"Part of our job is to draw blockers to the middle,'' Zak said. "We're not just swinging. We're distracting the defense.''
Rounding out the big five are Shirek (217 kills), Carrie Nistler (211) and Allie Ness (160).
Nistler and Ness have made the big jumps. Nistler has nearly doubled her total after getting 110 kills last season. Ness had only 38 kills last season, playing mostly junior varsity before moving into the varsity rotation late in the year.
"Carrie has improved a lot from last year,'' Strand said. "She's a very consistent hitter. She's not flashy. She just gets the job done. Allie has become more and more consistent.''
The balance is a setter's delight. Kaia Sorby (458 assists) and Mackenzie Hughes (595 assists) split time running the offense.
"It definitely makes our job easier,'' Sorby said. "I can go to anyone at any time and know they will all deliver.''
Sorby said none of the hitters get greedy, demanding more sets. "We don't have that 'I need to get the ball' mentality,'' Sorby said. "As long as we're getting the swings and points, it doesn't matter who is getting the ball.''
Traditionally, the Thompson offense has been geared to getting the ball to its middle hitters. With an abundance of hitters, the spread-the-wealth approach has worked well for the Tommies.
And balance goes beyond hitting. Seven players have 160 or more digs, led by Lauren Cunningham (563) and Zak (502).
"It's probably the most well-rounded team we've had in awhile,'' Strand said.
Thompson at a glance
Coach: Lisa Strand.
Record: 36-1-1, Region 2 champion.
Recent state tournament history: Thompson is making its second straight state tournament appearance and 14th in the program's history. The Tommies finished second last season.
State tournament opener: The second-seeded Tommies play Center-Stanton (34-8-0, Region 5 champion) at 1 p.m. Thursday in the quarterfinals of the Class B state tournament in Minot.
Tommies' regular rotation (kills-blocks-service aces): Jr. L Lauren Cunningham (3-x-58, 563 digs), jr. S Kaia Sorby (8-x-40, 458 assists, 221 digs), sr. OH/RH Carrie Nistler (211-16.5-52, 166 digs), jr. OH/MH Allie Ness (160-10-x), sr. OH Izzy Shirek (217-6.5-34, 169 digs), jr. DS Ashlyn Warcken (3-x-3, 315 digs), soph. S Mackenzie Hughes (87-11-29, 595 assists, 300 digs), jr. MH/RH Macy Jordheim (253-56.5-1, 70 digs), sr. MH Taylor Zak (329-63-35, 502 digs).