The setting was a familiar place for cousins Rylee Pieper and Halle Pribyl. Meridian’s talented senior and sophomore duo walked into the Bob Devaney Sports Center for the second time in two years on Saturday on the biggest of stage of Nebraska high school volleyball for the NSAA D-1 state championship match.
The opponent – a familiar foe in two-time defending state champion Johnson-Brock and 2019 Husker recruit Fallon Stutheit.
Meridian fell to Johnson-Brock in a 3-0 sweep just nine days prior at the D1-1 district title game and in last year’s Class D-1 state title match 3-1. But on Saturday, Meridian made sure that the Eagles were going to have scratch and claw for their third-consecutive state title. 
“We went out there and we showed them what we’re made out of and they’re going to remember Meridian,” Pieper said. “I’m just glad that we made it to the state championship again and we absolutely played our hearts out. I feel like there’s nothing to be upset about.”
The Mustangs proved they belonged from opening serve, building a 21-17 lead in the first set on a combined nine kills by Pribyl and Pieper. Johnson-Brock responded with three straight kills and an took advantage of an attack error to tie it up at 21 all.
“Meridian is a really awesome team and we have played them so many times that we do know what they’re doing, but same thing works for them,” Stutheit said. “Coming into this game we knew they weren’t just going to give it to us, we knew we were going to have to play really hard to get the win.”
After a timeout from Meridian head coach Bob VanWesten, Johnson-Brock closed out the set by scoring four of the next five points via a kill apiece from Stutheit, Brynn Westenburg, Mattie Nichols, and an attack error from Pieper to cap the Eagles’ 8-1 game-changing run that led to a 25-22 first set victory.
“That hurt but at least we knew we could play with them,” VanWesten said.
Johnson-Brock carried the momentum into the second set to take a decisive 2-0 lead on their way to becoming the 13th school in Nebraska’s history to win at least three consecutive volleyball state titles with a 3-1 (25-22, 25-17, 22-25, 25-23) victory. 
“It’s different, having experience playing here and playing in the state tournament the past two years definitely helps. It relieves maybe a little bit of pressure, but we also use that as motivation because we wanted that again,” Stutheit said of Saturday’s state title win compared to the previous two.
Johnson-Brock head coach Tera Stutheit, who rose the championship trophy with her daughter Fallon for the third-straight year, had a hard time putting into words what it meant to be able accomplish such a special feat.
“It’s pretty special. It’s such a special moment, it’s just really, really nice,” she said.
Fallon shared a similar feeling.
“It’s amazing. I wouldn’t want to share this experience with anyone else and she’s my biggest supporter,” she said.
But before the Eagles and the Stutheit’s joined elite company with their three-peat, Meridian had Johnson-Brock on the ropes.
Meridian jumped out to a 15-8 lead on their way to a relatively easy third set win (25-22) behind Pribyl’s eight kills.
“Just being a sophomore in my last game with these girls I knew we had to play our hearts out because it’s my last time with them and next year it’s going to be different and I’m going to miss it a lot,” Pribyl said.
Johnson-Brock brought it within two points on two occasions at 18-16 and 22-20, but Pieper and Pribyl ended each rally with a kill of their own.
A fifth set seemed to be in the making midway through the fourth set with the Mustangs surging to a 13-9 advantage via four kills from Pieper, two from Pribyl, one from Hailey Schafer, an ace from Jaicee Sobotka, and four Johnson-Brock errors.
The Eagles turned to their top two attackers from the regular to mount the comeback. Fallon and Kaitlynn Simon combined for nine of Johnson-Brock’s last 16 points.
“When you’re playing a team of that level it takes a little bit extra,” VanWesten said.
The Meridian head coach added that he had no doubt his team and his group of seven seniors gave it their all on Saturday and it was a pleasure to get to coach such a quality group of girls.
“It’s been special. A lot of them played, three of them started as freshman and the rest of them are in there playing as sophomores at least. So it’s a lot of games with the same girls,” he said. “They just did a great job, they have great attitudes, their just great kids. They always come to practice ready to work in good moods. I’ve never had a problem with them. They’re just a great bunch of gals.”
For Pieper and Pribyl, the state championship loss was likely the final time the two will step onto a volleyball court together in the same uniform.
But the two cousins will always remember the times they had together growing up, playing volleyball in the backyard and dreaming of playing volleyball on the big stage together.
“Ever since we were little we would play outside on the swing set and we played volleyball back and forth. And we were like oh yeah, we’re going to be on TV one of  those days, we’re going to be at the state championship. It’s just always been a dream,” Pieper said. “I mean we’re basically like sisters. We live like three blocks from each other. So just like to be able play with her it’s just a great bond that we can have.”