Morgan Theiler (left) and Barry Applewhite were conference players of the year for Dominican High School’s volleyball teams, which both won conference titles this fall. (Photo by Larry Hanson)

It was a historic volleyball season at Dominican High School this fall.

The girls team won its first conference title since 1997, knocking off a perennial state power to do it, and the boys team won its first conference championship, in just its fifth season in existence. Morgan Theiler for the girls team and Barry Applewhite of the boys team were also named conference players of the year for the Knights.

For Theiler, she had been cognizant of the drought, especially since coach Jimmy Burg took over the program before the 2020 season.

“I think I’ve always known it’s been a while,” said Theiler, who was one of just two seniors on the team. “My junior year is when we really realized it’s been this long. When we got our new coach, he said winning conference is a big thing.”

Added Burg: “Many of our older and advanced players have been on varsity for two or three years already, so it’s something that has been on their mind and targeted for a while. The girls worked hard at many different things with their skills physically, mentally and emotionally to be able to achieve the championship.”

Theiler said the moment winning the conference moved something that was a goal on the team’s white board to something realistic and tangible was when the Knights came back from down 2-0 to defeat Burlington Catholic Central in five sets. Part of the Knights’ drought has been the fact they have been in the same conference as Catholic Central, which has won seven state championships since 2006.

“I think it was at that point that we knew,” Theiler said. “BCC’s such a strong team every single year. They’ve won state numerous times. That was a team that we never beat until my senior year, so once we beat them, I think our confidence level was at an all-time high. We had a lot of momentum going forward after that game.”

Making sure the next drought doesn’t reach 24 years is something Theiler thinks this year’s underclassmen will be able to achieve.

Burg, who stepped down as coach of the Knights at the end of the season, also thinks it’s possible, especially in a conference that featured numerous senior starters across the various teams.

“This team definitely has the opportunity to do great things next year,” Burg said. “They have leaders in the program who are ready to step up and take bigger roles on and off the court. Everyone on the team will have to be ready to put the work in to continue their growth and change. Dominican plays in a difficult volleyball conference, so improvement is going to be needed to continue a high level of success.”

For Mark Rybakowicz, he stepped in as head coach of the boys program in its second season — 2018 — and saw the team steadily rise throughout the years.

“It’s maybe even easier because there’s no established format, there’s no established family,” Rybakowicz said.

He said the key to the growth of the program, which jumped from third in the conference in 2020 to first this season, can be attributed to a group of athletic players who developed quickly and bought into the program. The Knights got all the way to sectional finals where they lost to eventual state champion Marquette.

“I was fortunate enough to be here when I was and ride that four years to what we achieved this year,” Rybakowicz said. “From the beginning, I just wanted to grow every year and we accomplished that.”

Applewhite said the moment he knew for sure the team could achieve great success was when the Knights came back from down 2-1 to defeat Whitnall early in the season.

“I thought our team showed a lot of resilience coming back and winning in five,” Applewhite said. “I played with all of those seniors for four years. You create a bond throughout those four years, both on the court and off the court, so we knew each other’s playing styles, and we knew we could lead and help each other on the court.”

The success of the Knights has Rybakowicz thinking big – perhaps going to state and winning a title eventually.

“If I didn’t think that we could make it to state and win state someday, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing,” Rybakowicz said.