Digging deep

Laila Illoway photo Pinedale senior Sara Kunard keeps the ball alive during a game at the Rawlins Tournament in early September.

Kunard earns All-State honors

PINEDALE – A rival volleyball player steps up to serve against the Pinedale High School Lady Wranglers. She sends the ball barreling over the net.

Springing into action, Pinedale senior libero Sara Kunard reads the ball’s trajectory and instantly moves into a position to receive the serve. Kunard flawlessly passes the ball to the setter.

A hitter from the opposing team slams down a powerful blow. From a distance, it appears as though the ball is headed straight for the floor.

Kunard is prepared though. She dives, slides her hand under the ball and pops it back into the air. The ball is still in play.

A libero must think and act quickly, responding to countless serves and spikes hurtling across the court at breakneck speeds.

“On serve receive, you try to get a perfect pass to the setter,” Kunard explained. “But digs are a lot harder to get up. If you can get the ball right to the setter’s spot, that’s perfect. Sometimes those hits are coming pretty hard, so you just do what you have to do.”

The thrill of making that unexpected dig in response to a spike from a top-notch hitter is an “awesome” feeling, Kunard said.

“I love libero,” she said. “Even though you’re not the person that always gets the kills, it’s fun to be able to pick up those hard kills or keep your team in play. You’re always hustling for everything.”

Liberos play a crucial role in defending the court. The position involves stamina, athleticism, the ability to take a hit and plenty of hustle.

Kunard’s tenacious pursuit of the ball during the 2022 fall volleyball season caught the attention of the Wyoming Coaches Association. Kunard received 3A West All-Conference and 3A All-State honors from the organization in recognition of her hard work and talent.

“I feel honored to be part of the All-State group,” she said.

Practice, practice, practice

Kunard knew she wanted to be the libero when she first went out for volleyball as a freshman at Pinedale High School (PHS).

“The libero my freshman year was Anna Harber,” Kunard said. “I just remember she had a ton of hustle. She would go for anything. I definitely looked up to her and I wanted to be one of those girls that the team could look up to.”

Playing libero is demanding. The role involves innumerable hours of practice, perfecting “free ball passes” and honing the technique of “getting the ball high off digs,” Kunard explained.

“As long as you practice how you’re going to play, you’ll play like that,” she said.

Practice consists of repetitive drills. Athletes sprint, dive or chase the ball all over the court in response to whatever comes over the net. Players learn skills like making a “pancake” – hitting the floor and sliding a hand underneath the ball in the nick of time.

Kunard played varsity libero her junior and senior years. As a senior, she mentored younger players. The coaching staff rotated team captains, providing opportunities for each varsity athlete to take on a leadership role.

“Our biggest thing was that all the team captains could help everyone,” Kunard said. “If you were a hitter, like (senior) Haylen (Sandner), you would most likely help the hitters. I’d help the defensive and specialist girls, or the liberos, with tips and keys.”

Kunard’s example made an impact. Several junior varsity players are already vying for the libero position, “which is awesome,” she said.

Finding confidence

Kunard is unfazed by volleyballs flying in her direction at 100 mph. Building that confidence took time, however.

Kunard started playing volleyball when she was little, following in her mother’s footsteps.

“I remember my mom throwing the ball around to me in the grass when I was young,” Kunard said.

Kunard joined the Pinedale Middle School team and played libero on the junior varsity squad her freshman and sophomore years at PHS.

Varsity was a whole different beast.

“It’s hard stepping up to a varsity team,” Kunard said. “You’re really nervous. I remember I was shaking when I first played varsity.”

The coaching staff helped Kunard gain confidence. Coaches taught athletes to develop the “right mindset” to recover from mistakes and turn negative situations into positive ones, Kunard said.

Head Coach Tamara Currah’s gentle leadership encouraged Kunard.

“(Currah) makes me laugh, because all the seniors told her to yell at us if we were doing something wrong,” Kunard said. “But she would never yell at us. She’s a really kind coach.”

A strong bond between teammates developed. All high school teams experience turnover with graduating seniors and new players coming in. The group of seniors this year was particularly close, Kunard said.

“We’ve been playing together forever,” she added.

The team chemistry “clicked really fast,” said Kunard.

“It was a relief to just play and know everyone would be okay with you and support you no matter what,” she added.

Kunard is a multisport athlete and excels on the basketball court for the Lady Wranglers. Both volleyball and basketball rely heavily on teamwork, an aspect of sports Kunard appreciates.

“If you’re having a tough game, the team makes it worth the struggles that you go through,” she said. “You know you can always get a laugh from them after, before or during practice if you are having a tough time.”

Tackling a tough season head on

The Lady Wranglers squared off against a particularly challenging set of opponents in their conference this season, including rivals Mountain View and Lyman.

Pinedale defeated Lyman early in the season at the Rawlins Tournament. The Lady Wranglers scored big wins against significantly larger teams at the Riverton Tournament on Aug. 26-27.

The 3A West Conference Duels in Lander in mid-October were a “highlight,” Kunard said. Pinedale defeated Lovell, Worland and Thermopolis and gave Powell a run for its money.

Kunard’s favorite game of the season was Pink Out Night on Oct. 14 when the Lady Wranglers took on Mountain View in Pinedale. The team lost, but forced Mountain View to fight for every point through four close sets.

Pink Out Night honored breast cancer survivors and those battling the disease. The team also recognized Superhero Assistant Coach and Pinedale Elementary student Braylee White.

“We were playing for a different purpose,” Kunard said. “We were playing for Braylee, which helped us all go a little harder and push for something. Our team came together and each of us had an amazing game. Winning a set against Mountain View was awesome and it brought our confidence up. We knew we could compete with anyone.”

The Lady Wrangler’s season ended earlier than the team would have liked, although Pinedale put up a tenacious fight at the Regional Tournament.

Regardless of the outcome Kunard chose to focus on the positive elements.

“Even though we did lose, we had high moments where we were all excited for each other and we did have lots of hustle plays that were pretty great,” she said. “It was a long, long bus ride, but we all got to talk the whole way and have fun for the rest of the day. It was great to be with the team.”

Kunard plans to stay in Wyoming for college. Her career path is undecided, although she is interested in dental school or studying sports medicine.

Kunard thanked her parents for supporting her, encouraging her to “do well” and “making sure I have confidence that I can do it.”

Kunard gave a shout out to the Lady Wrangler coaching staff and the other seniors on the team.

“They’ve been with me since forever,” she said. “They’re a big reason why I play – just the relationships I have with them.”