The Union Knights will play their opening-round match against Davenport Assumption (32-5) on Wednesday after a three-year absence from the state tournament. A lot – or all – of the reasons can be attributed to the play the Knights have exhibited on the court. From Jasmyn Bush’s and Belle Weber’s offensive capabilities to Sophie Winkelpleck’s, Lexi Nolan’s and Allie Driscol’s efforts on defense, and everything in between, Union (30-11) has earned this right.
But there are some, both on the team and in the stands, who ascribe at least some of the magic this season’s Knights have shown to something a little more materialistic. Something a little more inanimate. And, if you believe everyone involved, something a little more creepy.
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It all started with a wrong turn...
Junior libero Sophie Winkelpleck and her mother, Suzanne, drove around Ames in the waning days of summer. They searched for a place to eat after attending a volleyball camp hosted by Iowa State University. Both Sophie and Suzanne agree that while driving, Suzanne made a wrong turn into a parking lot in front of an abandoned storefront. Suzanne flipped a quick U-turn.
That’s when it caught her eye. Ruffled, strawberry blonde hair. Fair skin. Piercing, unblinking brown eyes with thin, arched brows. A lacy white dress with a matching bow. If the twins in ‘The Shining’ had a long-lost younger sister, this doll wouldn’t be far off.
“There she was, hanging in a small tree,” Suzanne said.
She stopped the car to get a closer look. Sophie said the first consensus among those in the car was something along the lines of “let’s go get her.”
“It’s really freaky and weird,” Sophie said. “But if my mom hadn’t made that wrong turn, we would’ve never found her. It was meant to be.”
Sophie took the doll down and returned to the safety of the family vehicle. The Winkelplecks and their passengers did eventually find their sustenance – some pasta plates at Noodles and Company – and returned to the rest of the Union team. When Sophie met with her teammates, they decided to name the doll. Senior outside hitter Jasmyn Bush bestowed a name onto this doll in an instantaneous epiphany.
Briana. Lovingly named in honor of head coach Brian Jesse.
Bush said the team initially didn’t want to tell Jesse about his new namesake. She insisted they did. So, she took Briana to meet Jesse.
“He just gave her like a little...” Bush stops to imitate her coach giving the doll a stern sideways glare.
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But then it started going right...
Winkelpleck, Bush and the Knights took Briana to their first regular-season tournament of the year at Independence High School on Aug. 31. She sat underneath the chairs along the Union sideline during every single point.
That Saturday afternoon, Union outscored its opponents 239-177 on its way to winning 10 out of 11 sets, taking down a couple of ranked teams and starting the season 5-0. The legend of Briana had been born.
Coach Jesse has publicly said only a handful of words on his namesake. They came after this tournament.
“It’s creepy,” he said.
But did it help?
“I guess,” he said. “Whatever helps, I guess.”
Winkelpleck and her teammates saw it a bit more enthusiastically.
“’OK guys, Briana, she’s on our side,’” she remembers telling them all.
There are several other remarkable aspects to Briana’s and Sophie’s relationship. For one, Briana lives in Sophie’s car, a gray Chevy Cruze, whenever she isn’t in action on the Union sideline. Before her current living quarters, Sophie kept Briana in her bedroom. But her mere presence there got to Sophie before long.
“She is a little creepy,” Sophie said. “But I love her.”
For another, Sophie Winkelpleck used to have pediophobia, a fear of dolls. She used to have a collection of American Girl dolls before she had a nightmare about them. After that, she asked her mother to sell every last one. Sophie said this happened 10 years ago.
Even though she said she’s over the fear now, Briana remains the lone doll she owns.
“I used to be deathly afraid of dolls because I was afraid they’d come to life,” she said.
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So, what’s the verdict?
Supernatural objects in horror movies often need to be taken care of. Any slight against the cursed thing could result in untimely consequences.
The night of Sept. 17, the Union volleyball team took a trip to face off against Denver. Of course, Briana came along and roosted on her normal spot underneath the Knights’ chairs.
However, something happened that night. There’s no confirmation of how it happened, but Briana took a tumble resulting in a gash down the left side of her face. A chunk of her plastic flesh above her left eye cleaved its way from her base, a battle scar born from a rowdy 3-1 win.
Suzanne Winkelpleck said after the game that she’d take Briana back to the family’s kitchen and begin the careful process of repairing her. Whether the super glue Suzanne used was blessed by a priest is unconfirmed.
Even still, the Knights continued their winning ways, taking the next five matchups while losing just a single set.
A string of five consecutive losses at a tournament at Waverly-Shell Rock on Sept. 10 may have put Briana’s legacy in jeopardy. Was she losing that dark magic that sparked the Knights to start the season off perfect?
Union bounced back. They only dropped two of their final 11 matches before entering postseason play, sweeping every opponent they beat.
In their regional finals matchup against Dike-New Hartford – a team Union had beaten once in 20 previous attempts – Briana stayed in Sophie’s car. A thrilling five-set win sent the Knights back to the state tournament. Winkelpleck, Bush and everyone else on the Union side had monstrous games, all without the supernatural aid of the team’s unofficial mascot. Sophie said she asked her teammates whether they should bring Briana for such a pivotal game.
Unanimously, the team declined.
“We’ve gone without her a couple of times and won,” she said. “That was just the consensus.”
When Union plays against Davenport Assumption Wednesday morning at the U.S. Cellular Center, it may have Briana lurking on the sideline. It may not. Maybe the team’s fate isn’t tied to a hunk of objectively creepy plastic. Either way, Briana has made a lasting impact on the 2019 Union Knights.
“We’re just going with the flow,” Sophie said. “She’s here for the ride.
“We’ve accepted her as one of our own.”