BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
NEW LONDON – It’s a shame that two of the best teams in the state were pitted against each other in a regional semifinal matchup, but it was as good as billed as Holy Trinity Catholic advanced to the regional championship Tuesday night in Ottumwa.
The Crusaders needed four games to knock off 6th-ranked New London 16-25, 25-20, 25-19, 25-18. The two teams had split four regular season matches 2-2 going into the regional semifinal Thursday night at New London.
HTC, who had breezed past Burlington Notre Dame and Seymour in two three-set affairs leading up to Monday night’s Class 1A Region 8 semifinal, got off to a shaky start in the first game. The Crusaders trailed by as much as six points on several occasions in the raucous New London Junior/Senior high gymnasium.
The Lady Tigers jumped to a quick 6-1 lead on senior Savanna Sutherland’s five service points. Seniors Emily Box and Madison Mohrfeld both hit long kills in the New London rally and a defensive error forced Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier to use a time out. The Crusaders got the next point and were able to stay within six points, eventually closing the gap to 8-10 on a Box kill.
But New London started reading Box at the net and were able to block HTC’s main threat in the middle. But at 8-12, Box, junior Eryn Anderson, and Mohrfeld all hit long to push the Tigers’ lead back to six at 8-14. Holy Trinity closed to three again when the Tigers’ senior Ashley Birdsell’s attack went long at 11-14. Birdsell and senior Breanna Mettler took control of the net, sending three attacks back for points, and the Tigers had pushed the lead to 7 at 12-19.
Mettler had two more kills to give New London a 24-14 lead. Box and junior Taylor Boeding had kills to bring it back to 8 points 24-16, but a missed attack by Anderson gave the game to the Tigers.
“We made a lot of mistakes in that first game and a lot of it was adrenaline,” Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier said after the game. “The kids were psyched and pumped up all day. As much as you tell them to stay cool, that’s not going to happen, they’re kids. “But we made some adjustments and they settled in. This group believes in each other and I guess it didn’t matter how much we were down tonight.”
The two teams started trading points in the second game to a 4-4 tie and then Box went to the service line and ripped off five straight with two kills from Anderson and one from Boeding from the outside to make it 9-4 Crusaders. At 11-8, senior Maya Rashid had a pretty fake set that went halfway down the net behind her and dropped in for a 12-8 lead. That play seemed to spark an extra jolt of momentum as HTC went on a 6-3 run and held a 16-12 lead.
But New London battled back to a 19-18 deficit, but Anderson recorded another kill and forced a New London time out at 20-18. HTC didn’t let the Tigers back in after the timeout and went on a 5-2 run to win the game with a Box kill.
“We started moving Emily around in the second game because they were blocking her well,” Freesmeier said. “Then Taylor hit some balls for us and, look at Eryn, she was a different player in the middle tonight. We had Elyse come in and serve for us, and Sam’s the best server on our team but we gave up that serve for defense, and tonight that worked. It was awesome.”
Rashid said the team wasn’t connecting in the first game and some changes were made in the second.
“We really had to be disciplined with our defense. We knew we could pick up those balls and we weren’t talking, didn’t cross very well and we didn’t read their blocking hands very well in the first game. Their blocking was very solid tonight,” she said.
The Crusaders trailed again in the early going of the third game, being down by as much as six 2-8 on a kill by Tigers’ sophomore Addie Pry. Freesmeier called another stop and the Crusaders responded with Mya Lawlor, playing in just her second match this year, at the service line.
Lawlor went on a tear serving for nine straight points including four aces and had the Tigers on the run. Box had a kill and a shared block with Rashid in the run that wasn’t broken until Lawlor missed on her 10th attempt and took the Crusaders from a 4-9 deficit to a 13-10 lead. At 14-12 HTC put together another 6-3 run with kills from Hoenig, Rashid, and Box. Two defensive errors by New London had the Crusaders with a 20-15 lead.
At 22-16, Boeding registered another kill from the outside, Box scored from the middle, and Mohrfeld put the game away with a kill at 25-19.
The fourth game saw HTC in control at the start, but New London brought the game to a tie at 10-10 on a kill by junior Kaylor Schulte. They took an 11-10 lead when Mohrfeld’s attack went long. Box faked an attack and scored, dumping the ball over the blockers to tie it back up at 11. Lawlor served long to put New London back on top 11-12 and Mettler and Birdsell teamed up to block and score at 13-11.
Box had a kill on the next service point to make it 12-13 and then recorded an ace to tie the game at 15. The Crusaders then went on a 10-3 run to win the match including a nifty series of five straight points won at the net by Anderson, three attack scores by Box, and a Box block that scored.
Freesmeier said after the game she didn’t think it was fair that these teams met this early in the post season.
“It’s too bad because there’s going to be teams at that state tournament that New London’s better than. I don’t think it’s fair. There’s nothing I can do, it’s a state decision.”
The two teams are in the same conference, but Freesmeier said Janesville and Tripoli are closer than New London and Fort Madison and they are in different regions to keep the top teams at the tournament.
“They do that for Tripoli and Janesville and they’re 20 miles apart. The state says they want to get the top eight teams there and last year they did, but this year they did not,” she said.
Rashid said she knew the Crusaders were capable of putting some runs together.
“We knew that we had to start running runs. We would say Emily would run this or that and I would set it somewhere else and then Taylor came up with some bombs. She was on it tonight, so was Eryn. Everyone was solid.”
Box, who finished 53-60 attacking with 25 kills, and was icing her right shoulder and knee after the match, said she was frustrated in the first game.
“The first game I was getting flustered and I just had to fix that. I needed to get around the block,” she said. “My teammates were behind me the whole time and they really picked me up and that was the big turnaround after the first game.”
She said this was one of the toughest matches HTC will face all year.
“This is one of the toughest games we’ll play. It’s a huge rivalry and we both put it all out there tonight.”
Anderson said after the nerves settled in, things came more naturally.
“We finally got it together. The first game I think the nerves shook us up and the crowd obviously. We finally played within ourselves and we really started to trust each other especially on defense,” she said. “We have so much respect for them. They’re a great team, hands down – they have great coaching, great girls, and we knew it was going to be a dogfight.”
Anderson finished with 27-32 attacks and 11 kills and Boeding was 25-29 at the net with 10 kills. Elyse Pothitakis was 11 of 11 serving with one ace and Lawlor ended the game 20 of 21 serving with four aces.
Tuesday’s game begins at 7 p.m. at the Evans Middle School in Ottumwa against 25-7 Southeast Warren-Liberty Center.