Once the dust settles and the sting wears off, Highland will realize it has a ton of reasons to be proud.
Sure, the Huskies' prep volleyball season ended Wednesday, but under first-year Coach Shannon Hills-Copeman, they won more matches than any Highland team over the past seven years.
"That was the only thing I said to them in the locker room," Hills-Copeman said after Highland lost to Central City, 21-25, 25-13, 25-12, 25-15, in a Class 1A regional quarterfinal at Central City High School.
"How absolutely proud I am of them from the beginning of the season to now. They have made a huge change in themselves in who they are, not only as volleyball players but as people. They have been great."
With a final win-loss record of 13-15, it is the third year in a row that Highland increased its win total from the previous season. Three years ago, the Huskies won just three matches. Two years ago, it was seven and last year's group won 11. The 13 victories for the current group is the largest since the 2016, when Highland team won 22 and fell in a 2A regional quarterfinal.
"We have honestly grown a lot, even especially from last year," Highland senior setter MyLei Smith said. "Our confidence has also gained and looking at the past from last year, it is just nice to see the difference."
Highland appeared to have its sights set on win No. 14 by racing out to an 18-9 lead over Central City in Game 1 en route to the 25-21 win.
"The girls were ready to go," Hills-Copeman said. "They knew that it was all or nothing and they went out there and gave everything their all. They played great ball the first set."
Central City (20-12) asserted itself in the remaining three games, beginning with an 11-1 burst to close Game 2 and a 9-1 surge to open the third game. After falling behind in the decisive fourth game, 18-7, Highland managed to string together a few points before Central City slammed the door on the season.
"We stopped talking and our energy went down," said Smith, who finished the game with 17 assists and 10 digs. "We succeed well as a team when our energy is up, so when that does go down, we do tend to snowball."
Smith will be one of five seniors – along with outside hitter Adelynn Kloepfer (72 kills, 98 digs, 37 ace serves this season), middle hitter Jessica Kraus (53 kills, 38 digs, 19 ace serves), reserve Lillee Boshart and defensive specialist Avery Pierson (34 digs) – Highland volleyball will lose to graduation, and her absence on the floor and her vital role as team captain is expected to leave a significant void.
"She is a team leader," junior outside hitter Sarah Burton said. "She pulls us all together. Just her being on the court makes everyone happy."
Smith finished the season with 264 assists along with 147 digs and a team-high 48 ace serves. Sophomore Laney Skelton is expected to assume the setter role next season and the team is excited not only for the potential of Skelton, but another year of growth for other returners like Burton (team-high 203 kills and 258 digs), sophomore middle hitter Adeline Krotz (101 kills, 23 blocks, 156 digs, 25 ace serves this season) and junior right-side hitter Grace Prybil (192 assists).
"We lose some, but we are also gaining qute a few," Hills-Copeman said. "Great girls from our fresh-soph-JV levels. Laney Skelton is up and she has been in a few times at the varsity level after MyLei got hurt and she will step right into MyLei's shoes and she will be amazing."
Highland entered the quarterfinal match with wins in three of its last four matches and five of eight. The Huskies opened regional play on Monday with a 25-20, 25-18, 27-25 sweep of Tri-County in which Burton recorded 16 kills and 10 digs. Smith and Prybil each distributed 17 assists. Smith also recorded 19 digs, while sophomore Lilly Barre added 17 and Krotz had 12.
Central City advances to a regional semifinal Monday at No. 1 Springville (35-3).
The Highland players will now turn their focus to other sports for the remainder of the school year. Burton will participate in basketball, track and softball, while Smith will join her on the track and softball squads.
"I am definitely very proud of us," Burton said. "People just kind of overlook us and be like, 'It's Highland, they're not really that good.' I remember our first game of the year against Danville (a Highland victory), we went five sets with them. They were not expecting that. We were just ready to come out and play."