BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – With a run of eight straight appearances at the state volleyball tournament in their hip pockets, the Holy Trinity Crusaders are navigating familiar surroundings.
With names like Foecke, Orton, and Randolph barely out of the rearview window, an experienced and tested group head to the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids for a Wednesday 8 p.m. matchup on Court One.
The Crusaders, ranked 5th in Class 1A in the last regular season rankings, will take on a Starmont team that at 30-5 was rated just ahead of HTC at No. 4. The Stars are riding a 12-match win streak where they’ve dropped just one set, and have won 22 of the past 23 with the only loss coming to Class 3A 3rd-ranked Waterloo Columbus Catholic. The Stars pushed the first game with Waterloo to a 27-25 tiebreaker loss.
Starmont features a host of 5’6″ juniors incuding hitting specialist Hayley Goedken, who is third in the Upper Iowa conference in kills with 306 on the year. The Stars Madilyn Vaske is fourth with 278 kills and Macy Mommer is seventh with 233 kills. Another 5’6″ junior runs the court for the Stars in assist specialist Regan Jannsen who leads Upper Iowa with 838 assists. Starmont dispatched 9th ranked Iowa Valley in three straight 25-19, 25-18, 25-9 to advance to the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union tourney.
But the Crusaders have a few credentials of their own. Junior Emily Box is the top hitter in the state in all classes with 623 kills as well as kills per set at 6.11 per set. Senior Maya Rashid leads Class 1A in the state in assists with 1,080 on the year.
The Crusaders are riding a 15-match winning streak and only dropped one set to 6th-ranked New London in regional play.
HTC head coach Melissa Freesmeier said the Crusaders are playing their best going into the tournament.
“They’re all just coming together and are playing right now the best we have all year,” she said.
The Crusaders dropped a 16-25 first set to New London on Oct. 26, but then came back and won three straight to advance. It was the first set Holy Trinity had lost since Oct. 5 in a regular season match with the Tigers.
Freesmeier said Starmont has seen some good teams and have athletic girls.
“I see a very athletic team from game film,” she said. “Their three hitters are definitely legit from what I’ve seen. They are small, but we’re small, too. But they’re scrappy and spunky. We’ll have to be disciplined and be in a position to do things.”
Freesmeier, whose surpassed 25 years coaching this year, said her philosophy is teaching the girls to control what’s in their power to control.
“I’m still a firm believer that you have to take care of your side of the court and do the things that have made us successful. We’ll have to serve aggressively and keep the ball in bounds.”
She said the string of eight trips to the tournament should allow the girls to get past the nerves of playing for their second championship in four years.
“They’ll still feel the excitement but they will settle in a littler earlier,” Freesmeier said. “They’ve been on that stage before. Hopefully they can take that adrenaline and channel it. Sometimes they take that adrenaline and hit it out the back door, so I just tell them to go have fun with your teammates and enjoy the atmosphere.”
Starmont was also in the tournament last year, but was bounced by eventual champion Janesville 25-20, 25-21, 25-19. Janesville also knocked out Holy Trinity in the semis 25-17, 25-23, 25-14. Janesville, Tripoli, and Springville are repeating the tourney this year. Others in the Class 1A bracket include North Tama, LeMars- Gehlen Catholic, Tripoli, and East Mills.
“They’ve seen some good teams this year,” Freesmeier said. “But so have we, and I don’t think many teams are better than (West Des Moines) Valley I can tell you that.”
The Crusaders saw the 2nd-ranked team in Class 5A mid season and lost 0-2 at the Urbandale Invitational, which brings in some of the best teams from across the state each year.
“It looks like a bracket that’s been there before,” Freesmeier said of the Class 1A setup. ” No matter how many times you’re in the state tournament, the nerves are still there for the kids. It’s in how they handle those nerves and channel it that will determine how we do.”
Freesmeier said the entire team will need to be ready to fulfill their roles for the Crusaders to have success in the tourney. She said the team will be looking to Box and Rashid for big plays and control of the match, but she said the rest of the team all has roles to fill.
“When we’re looking to get a kill late with Emily of course we’re gonna try to get that ball to her,” she said. “They’ve accepted their role, they know Emily is the girl to go to, but they all need to be ready to go when the time comes,” she said.
Rashid has been handling the setting duties for most of the year, which has led to her status as the best in Class 1A. Freesmeier said last year Rashid, shared that role with Ali Randolph, but with Randolph leaving to graduation, Freesmeier went to a 5-1 offense which typically puts the ball with Rashid in each point.
She said it’s a transition that Rashid was ready for.
“She sees the floor. She doesn’t get rattled and listens to her hitters and when she’s got that ball in her hands, she can do whatever she wants with it,” Freesmeier said.
“She’s a really good communicator and that’s so important in volleyball when you’re trying to get things done. She does a great job, she really does. Ali was that girl last year, but Maya was on the floor with her last year and learned and it just took over.”
As for the rest of the team, Freesmeier said they’ve all been rising to each challenge that has come in front of them for the past month.
“I expect them to do their jobs,” she said.
“Eryn (Anderson) and Taylor (Boeding) have had some great games down the stretch and have come up with some big kills for us. That will be huge for us if they can stay in control and play their games. Elyse (Pothitakis) and Mya (Lawlor) have played so well together and made such a big difference in what we’re doing now. With them on top of their game our hitters are that much better on the front line.”
In the rest of the bracket, Janesville (34-7) plays East Mills (Malvern) (24-8) at 6 p.m. on Court 1. LeMars-Gehlen Catholic (27-6) plays Tripoli (25-13) at 6 p.m. on Court 2. Springville (38-2) plays North Tama (29-7) at 8 p.m. on Court Two all in quarterfinal action.
Holy Trinity only has three varsity players this year that have not seen state tournament action.
Semifinals will be held Thursday at 6 p.m. on both courts with the championship being held on Friday at 7 p.m.
“I think it’s pretty much how the top eight panned out except they didn’t give No 6 a chance, which is New London. I feel bad for them. I think (the state) doesn’t give southeast Iowa enough credit. We’re really starting to see some good teams down here,” Freesmeier said.