This fall, the Ashland Bluejays volleyball team returns for its third straight year.

“Last year was our second season back having a team here in Ashland, so it was a vast improvement from our first year back,” Bluejays head coach Holly Fast said.

Sure, the Bluejays finished with an 8-21 record in 2017, but they also advanced to the Sub-State Finals of the State playoffs after pulling off a three-set stunner over Cunningham.

“We peaked at the end of the season, which was great,” Fast said.

It was also a team which had three seniors, but this year’s team has four.

“I’m thinking that our season is off to a good start and we should do well this year, and continue to improve,” Fast said.

Instead of having their own team, the Bluejays had played as part of the Bucklin Red Aces team for the previous few years before becoming their own team two years ago, Fast said.

The team’s first year back, 2016, wasn’t an easy one for the Bluejays. Fast said the team only had nine players, only one of which had seen any time on the varsity team, and it was a group devoid of seniors.

Which is why Fast said she believed last year was such an improvement. This team has started to gain experience and develop chemistry, and this year Fast said she believes it will be even better.

The team is working developing enthusiasm for the sport, something vital in both short and long terms for a team in the Southern Plains - Iroquois Activities Association, an ultra-competitive conference which includes three teams that went to state last year in Kiowa County, Fowler and state runner-up South Central.

“Ashland doesn’t have a long-standing volleyball tradition,” Fast said. “They actually, as far as our league goes, are actually new to the volleyball game. They’ve only had volleyball as a sport offered I think since about 2001, which is relatively short compared to other schools in our league.”

The Bluejays volleyball team is working on building a tradition and following within its community, Fast said. It’s getting better, but it’s taking time because people are still learning the game.

“There’s lots of people that still don’t understand how volleyball works and things like that,” Fast said. “So we’re working on building a program basically from scratch.”

It’s a process that Fast said has presented some fun challenges.

“It’s fun because we get to create our own environment,” Fast said. “But it does present a problem as far as attendance to games, things like that.

Followers and attendance are things the team is working to improve. It is improving, Fast said, but it’ll take time.

Another challenge of trying to promote volleyball in Ashland is the fact that league play, because of the teams mentioned earlier, is inherently difficult Fast said.

“From a  volleyball standpoint, we are in one of the toughest leagues in the state,” Fast said. “Our league is stacked.”

Which presents an interesting environment for a developing young team and program.

“We’re surrounded by tremendous people, which is another challenge in trying to promote success,” Fast said laughing. “We’re surrounded by teams that art stacked. It’s an interesting environment to be in right now. It makes it challenging, but it makes the girls improve significantly from start to finish over the season. So we’re just continuing to look up, and look forward.”

Last year the team lucked out in drawing an out-of-league sub-state, which, in last year’s case, meant the 8-21 Bluejays drew the then 21-12 Cunningham Wildcats.

“It took three games and it was probably the longest volleyball game that I have ever seen in my life,” Fast said. “I think that that coach on the other team, as well as the ones that we were gonna play next were even shocked because our record did not reflect the level of play that we brought to the table, just because of the level of competition within our league.”

Fast said she thinks the entire match that day took almost two hours to complete.

“It’s the longest volleyball game I’ve ever been in, coaching or playing,” Fast said. “It was that close, and it took all three sets.”

They were gassed for the match after that, which didn’t help them in the sub-state final match which they lost afterward, Fast said.

Fast said the team gained some confidence from the match, which showed them that they are finally capable of winning. They got another confidence boost this summer when they went to the Pawnee Heights Invitational and took third place.

“That was not only the first time that they’ve had that much success in one day, but we also came away with hardware: We got medals,” Fast said. “That was a huge moral boost, so going into this year they are walking into it with confidence that we should do better than last year. It’s not just a question of if we’ll win, it’s what we’re going to win and how much better we’re going to do than last year.”