SERGEANT BLUFF | John Petersen was Renee Winkel’s first volleyball influence.
Then she met Mary Miller.
“It kind of goes back to Mary when she was best friends with my high school coach,” said Winkel, the third-year Sergeant Bluff-Luton coach. “It’s about attention to detail. It’s the little things that matter, whether that’s attitude, poise, posture, hitting the ball, placing the ball, mental games, the strategy. It’s in the details.”
The former Renee Beiermann won NAIA All-America honors as a right side hitter during her sophomore year at Briar Cliff in 2004 under Miller’s tutelage, then coached alongside her in 2008 and 2009.
Look what’s happening now. Fourth-ranked Sergeant Bluff-Luton (40-3) will face Miller’s No. 5 Bishop Heelan (33-10) squad in a first-round Class 4A state tournament match that will start at 4 p.m. Tuesday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
It’s the first-ever state tournament match between two Missouri River Activities Conference teams. Winkel’s Warriors are 3-0 against Miller’s Crusaders this year en route to winning both the league’s regular season and tournament titles for the second time in the last three years.
Winkel had been a middle hitter on Petersen’s teams that won Nebraska Class C1 titles at Columbus Scotus in 1999, 2001 and 2002. She first met Miller at a Briar Cliff camp following her sophomore year of high school where Petersen was part of the coaching staff.
“(Miller) has been that collegiate coaching figure in my life, someone I look up to and have a lot of respect for,” said Winkel. “I’ve seen what she has done for us as players and on the flip side, I coached with her, so I saw how coaches worked.”
Miller said Winkel came to Briar Cliff with a good offensive background. She switched the former all-stater to the right side and designated her to all-around duty.
“She made big strides at Briar Cliff,” said Miller. “She was one of our best servers and passers. She learned the all-around portion of the game. When she became a coach on my staff, she had the instant respect of the players. She was two years older than most of them. Mostly because of her knowledge, she had their respect because of such a great player she was.”
Winkel watched film with Miller. While with the Chargers, Miller taught Winkel how to hold players accountable and stressed her to make achievable expectations.
Miller soon discovered the two of them were alike, strategically. The cat-and-mouse types of games was something Winkel picked up from Miller.
“Last year after the season, we talked,” said Miller. “She saw us doing things with our middles. She let Kylee Christensen hit from the left side for a rotation or two to get the most out of her players. Her practices, I’m sure, are super organized. She has a plan every day and her players follow her. She shows such good composure.”
“When she coached me, she put me in a leadership position,” said Winkel. “She expected a leadership example. That gave me an example of what to expect from my own leaders and how they can be leaders.”
Winkel said the Crusaders may have the advantage based on their 22 prior state tournament appearances.
Six-foot Heelan senior outside hitter Samantha McCabe (352 kills, 379 digs, 55 blocks, 36 ace serves) will make her fourth consecutive state appearance. Meanwhile, 5-11 senior middle hitter Alex Hope (174 kills, 64 blocks, 36 ace serves) and 6-foot junior Nicole Jacobson (294 kills, 357 digs, 39 blocks, 31 ace serves) also helped Heelan reach the 4A state semifinals in 2015 and 2016.
“Every time we play Heelan, they have a different strategy,” said Winkel. “It’s a mental game, figuring how they’ll adjust. We’ll look at film to try to strengthen our weaknesses and play a guessing game of where Mary will block. They have good serve receive, different offensive option and they do not let any ball drop.
“Our mindset is not just beating Heelan. We want to go deep. We’re prepared to take on any opponent. I feel this team is capable of going all the way, honestly.”
Christensen (364 kills, 109 blocks), a 6-foot senior middle hitter, was a sophomore when Winkel, in her first-ever varsity assignment, guided the Warriors to the 3A state tournament. Lexi Sneller (886 assists, 185 digs, 78 blocks, 21 ace serves), a 5-9 senior setter and 6-2 junior middle hitter Madison Harms (297 kills, 165 blocks, 24 ace serves) also experienced the first-round state loss to Kuemper Catholic.
“Number one, we have to serve, pass and stay in system,” said Miller. “We want them to play defense more than they have the last two matches. We want to slow down Harms and Christensen, not stop them, but slow their touches to the ball. We also have to focus on the (Kenzie) Foley girl. She’s hurt us each of the last two matches.”
The battle between pupil and teacher is the consummate definition of what a friendly rivalry is all about. Christensen has noticed what has happened over the last three seasons.
“They have a really good friendship going on,” said Christensen. “It’s fun to play them because they get competitive with each other and it’s always fun. You can see them looking at each other and they’re just smiling. I think they just go off each other and take things from each other. That’s good.”