BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Been there – done that.
Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier, if you’ve been living under a rock and don’t know yet, is taking the Holy Trinity Crusaders to the Class 1A state volleyball tournament again – for the ninth straight year.
The action kicks off Wednesday at 8 p.m at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids where the 3rd-seed Crusaders will face off against 6th-seeded Montezuma.
The Lady Braves were ranked 7th in the state in 1A at the end of the regular season sporting a 30-6 record through regional play and haven’t dropped a set since Sept. 27. They disposed of 10th-ranked New London in three sets 25-13, 25-22 and 25-20, right after HTC got their ticket to state punched with a 25-10, 25-11, 25-5 8th district regional championship win over East Union.
Freesmeier said Montezuma will present unique challenges, but the Crusaders have been gaining confidence and peaking at the right time.
“They run their offense out of the middle and they have two very versatile girls in the middle and on the left in (senior Riley) Gatton and (junior Waverly) Roorda) who were all district last year,” Freesmeier said. “They are both great athletes. Our responsibility will be to slow them down and get some touches against them. Our defense will have to pick up some balls, but we know we need to control and try to make it tough for them to get the ball to the middle with some aggressive serving.”
Gatton was honorable mention all-state last year in Class 1A as a junior. She’s currently 9th in the state in kills with 328. Shateah Wetering is a junior this year and is in the top 25 in kills with 281. Roorda is currently 4th in the state in assists with 715.
The Crusaders are coming off of two of their most complete matches of the season in their wins over East Union and Seymour holding the opponents under 10 points in four of the six sets.
Holy Trinity will be relying on the heavy hitting of seniors Emily Box and Eryn Anderson to compliment some very nifty serving of late and some solid defense from seniors Mya Lawlor, Elyse Pothitakis, and Taylor Boeding.
Box, a first team All-State selection in 2017, is 4th in the state in Class 1A in hitting with 400 kills with a 41% kill efficiency. Anderson has come on strong in the regionals and is solid hitting with Box out of the rotation. Boeding plays all over the floor, literally, and can hit from the outside, while keeping the balls in play and serves at 96% efficiency with 60 aces on the year.
Lawlor’s serving kept both Seymour and East Union off balance placing the ball in a variety of zones with good efficiency and kept opposing defenses off balance.
“It’s huge for us to be able to serve aggressively,” Freesmeier said. “We’re smaller than most and we have to do more of the little things than others. We’ve picked up our serving in the post season. We’ve been good all year, but just have been great during that stretch. Taylor, Mya, Emily, Eryn, they all have a little different touch on the ball. It’s going to be a big factor in keeping teams out of their systems.”
A couple underclassman including freshman Kassie Randolph and sophomores Bailey Hellweg, Katie Denning, and Claire Pothitakis are coming into their first or second state tournament. Randolph’s sister Ali played on the state championship team of 2014 so she’s been exposed to the emotion of the tournament.
Freesmeier said the kids did a lot of drills against upperclassmen this week and she said the level of competitiveness is very high.
“We did a lot of underclassmen against upperclassmen drills and the competition is escalating. I think they’re competitively ready and they have to go out there and play. There’s nothing to be scared of.”
She said the seniors are looking to take it to the next level.
“Experience will help up there. The seniors have been here and done this,” Freesmeier said. “You want them to take it to that next level – this is your last shot.”
The winner of Holy Trinity/Montezuma will face the winner of LeMar Gehlen Catholic/East Mills on Thursday for the right to play for the title on Friday night, all on Court 2.
In the top half, reigning champion and top-seed Janesville (43-5) takes on 28-9 8th-seeded Gladbook-Reinbeck at 6 p.m. followed by 4th seed Starmont 29-6 against 23-15 Tripoli at 8 p.m, both matches on Court 1.
Freesmeier said the big hitters at the state tournament will require the Crusaders to be defensively sound and active at the net.
“Height is always a problem. What we do is use a block and find other ways to get kills. We also have to pass better than the other team. It will be tough because the caliber of teams up there is pretty impressive.”
She said Box has improved through the year and is better now at getting touches on kills by bigger hitters. And underclassmen Avery Hopper, Claire Pothitakis, and Katie Denning have been playing bigger at the net.
“Our defenders can dig up a lot and we need to touch the ball. Box has become better at that,” she said. “Right side is bigger this year and they’ve been getting a lot of touches – Claire, Avery, all three of them. We have to read where they’re going and try to slow them down. Those big hitters will get their kills and we can’t get wrapped up in that. You just have to go out play with confidence.”
Freesmeier said North Tama getting beaten in regionals was a surprise. North Tama, ranked 5th in the final Class 1A rankings, was knocked off in the semifinals by No. 11 Gladbrook-Reinbeck in three straight. But she said in the state tournament brackets any team can step up and surprise you.
“North Tama getting beat was a surprise, they were No. 5. But in the regionals it’s anybody’s game. There are a lot of the same teams at state from year to year. They are very solid programs and it’s anybody’s to win.”