Wildcat leader groomed for success

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
Tori Sermersheim has racked up kills in bulk in her final year of volleyball, and the senior has a soft side, too. For the last two years she’s held a part-time job grooming pets, squeezing in the work amid her crammed volleyball and basketball schedules. Tonight at 7, she’ll guide the Cats into a single-match Class 3A regional encounter against Evansville Bosse at the Jasper High School gym.

Herald Sports Editor

Tori Sermersheim has been told she’s a natural.

It’s evident in the way the Jasper senior springs off her feet, uncoils her arm and connects with the volleyball, which more often then not is sent screaming toward the opponent’s side where it lands with a violent thud.

Wait. Wrong activity.

Sure, Sermersheim can adroitly dominate a volleyball match, but we’re talking pet grooming here.

Sermersheim’s boss at Pet-Agree Professional Pet Grooming hates sports season, because it robs her of one of her star employees. Just as she’s built a reputation as the go-to girl for the Wildcats (20-16), who will tangle with Evansville Bosse (17-13) at 7 tonight in the single-match regional at the Jasper High School gym, Sermersheim has become a legend of sorts in the dog-grooming world. And in both circles, business is good.

Customers request Sermersheim for their doggie haircuts. Jasper basketball coach Ryan Erny has been trying to get Sermersheim to give his coon dog a trim. If your collie needs a clipping or your beagle needs a buzz, Sermersheim’s your gal.

She’s an animal lover who grew up on a farm, so when her aunt Bonnie Keusch recommended that Tori apply for a job at Pet-Agree a few years ago, Sermersheim followed through on the suggestion. She initially completed desk work until one day, her boss asked her if she’d like to try grooming.

“It was a long-haired wiener dog,” Sermersheim recalls with a laugh. “I groomed it and she said I was a natural.

“It’s weird, it’s not your typical high school job, but I enjoy it.”

It’s gotten to the point that Sermersheim — who has two dogs herself, a chocolate lab named Ruby and Bo, a Shetland Sheepdog — is always considering grooming strategies. Outside of work, when she sees a dog, one of the first thoughts that comes to mind is what sort of blade she’d use to clip its fur.

She’s won over clients and is one with her clientele, too.

While hanging out at a friend’s place Sunday, she recognized someone at the neighboring house. It wasn’t a person, but a four-legged customer instead.

“I’m like, ”˜Oh, that’s Bailey,’” she says. “It’s so weird. I know animals by their names.”

The animal adventures are also fodder for Sermersheim’s act as energizer for a blossoming Wildcat team that’s won 14 of its last 19 matches. Whether it’s through her swings (she’s got more than double the kills of any other Wildcat), her post-kill celebrations (she hops on both feet to join the huddle and sometimes cocks her body backward and wears an expression of raw joy) or her grooves (she’ll dance to the song “Laffy Taffy” before matches to loosen up teammates), Sermersheim establishes the tone. And she’ll regularly leave teammates in stitches with tales of her animal adventures, or misadventures.

Once, an uneventful work day turned hairy in a hurry. Three dogs she was supposed to groom didn’t show up at their appointed time. One customer called hoping to squeeze in a session for his St. Bernard, who was having a birthday.

“I told him yes because I wasn’t doing anything, but then the St. Bernard got there and the other three dogs got there, so I had four dogs at one time and I had to get done in a certain amount of time, and it was just really stressful. And I was like, ”˜This is not what a 16-year-old should be doing,’” she says with a laugh.

“But, yeah ... a lot of stories.”

After juggling four pooches, then the demands on the court don’t seem so tiresome.

While Sermersheim has built her brand on her tomahawking hits, she plays all through the rotation and aids the back row, too. Time on the bench is scarce. Jasper’s clinching point of Saturday’s sectional title came indirectly thanks to Sermersheim, who sprawled to the floor to rescue a Heritage Hills hit, then dug up another ball later in the point to allow teammate Alex Krapf the chance to hammer home the winning smash.

“We go as she goes a lot of times, and that’s a lot of pressure on her,” Jasper coach Liz Milligan said. “But for the most part, she’s handled that really well.”

She’s a natural, after all.

In January, she rang up 31 points in a basketball game against Gibson Southern. Not bad for a girl who freely admits “I’m not so passionate” about basketball as volleyball maintains superiority. She was the Cats’ second-leading scorer as a junior despite originally planning on not playing; the thought of letting people down — and desperate coaxing by others — was enough to change her mind.

The volleyball court is more of her sanctum. And to hear Milligan describe it, the only one capable of stopping Sermersheim is, occasionally, herself. Double-teams and triple-teams have arrived from opposing blockers this year, sometimes forcing the 5-foot-10 Sermersheim to resort to tips and roll shots. She’s not immune to cranking shots long or wide, but when that happens, Milligan urges her to default to the mode she knows best.

“I just want to tell her, ”˜Tori, swing away, they’re not stopping you. They can’t stop you,’” Milligan said. “I haven’t really seen anybody stop her yet, when she’s swinging away. Even the tougher teams we’ve played this year. She lets loose, she’s basically unstoppable.”

She does so with a soft touch, too.

“She’s always been a leader that doesn’t get down on everyone whenever they make mistakes,” said Wildcat sophomore Reagan Hochmeister, who’s become Sermersheim’s understudy. “Instead she pushes us to keep trying, and obviously she’s really funny and laid-back, so it’s just great, because sometimes you’ll have people who are at the top and get really frustrated with you, and she’s not really like that.”

Milligan hinted that if the Cats can find a way past the regional, they’ll need even more from Sermersheim the deeper they go. More Wildcat victories could equate to a higher population of scruffy dogs around town. But Sermersheim will tend to that gig before long, right after finishing the work she’s best known for.

“I didn’t know what I was in for (this season), but the bigger role gives me the drive to just work harder, too,” she says. “The bigger role is a lot to carry on your shoulders, but (other) players doing their role on the court helps a lot too because it’s not just one player. Once I do my role, then everything starts falling into place and everyone does their role.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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