BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
CEDAR RAPIDS – A two-point error in favor of the Holy Trinity girls volleyball team was the catalyst for a return trip to the Class 1A state championship.
The Crusaders, coming into the tournament seeded third, knocked off the 2nd-seed LeMar Gehlen Catholic Jays 25-15, 26-28, 25-20, 25-16 to advance to the title match Friday night against top seeded Janesville. That match will take place at 7 p.m. at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
With the Crusaders coming off the tough 26-28 loss in the second set after winning the first set 25-16, they found themselves down and with little momentum at 11-14 in the third set. After about a seven minute delay, the scoreboard was changed to 11-12 and the Crusaders took control from there on out.
Senior Emily Box, who finished with a 50% kill efficiency on the night going 22 of 44 attacking, got a block to knot the score at a dozen each, but the Crusaders would commit a defensive error to tie it up again at 13. That would be the last time the Jays would have the lead in the match.
Holy Trinity went on a 5-0 run from there with back-to-back kills from senior Taylor Boeding from the outside hitter spot to give HTC a 19-13 lead. The teams would trade sideouts and points to 24-18 when senior Mya Lawlor got another kill from the outside. The Jays’ senior Katelyn Langel got a center kill to make it 24-20 and Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier called a timeout to set up a play with Box on the seat out of the rotation.
Gehlen Catholic senior Brooklyn Heissel served and the Crusaders were able to move the ball to the outside where sophomore Claire Pothitakis shot a kill down the front right side for the match winner and put HTC one set from a return trip for the title.
HTC rushed to a 6-0 lead in the fourth set with senior Eryn Anderson serving. The Jays’ senior Anna Britt attacked in the middle that found the floor in front of the Crusaders’ back line to stop the run and then Gehlen Catholic went on a 6-0 run of their own, capped by a bump from Box that went long left. She made up for it with a kill off Gehlen’s Sydney Livermore’s serve to break the tie at 7-6.
HTC would run away with the rest of the set to win the match, highlighted by five kills from Box, who again found herself in the chair as HTC tried to cap the game at 24-14. After Gehlen coach Mike Meyer called a timeout at 24-16, the Crusaders got a push over the net on the left side that trickled off a couple Jays and hit the floor for the win.
Box said it was tough for her being on the sidelines at the end of the third and fourth sets.
“I wanna be in there every point of the game, but I can’t so I have confidence in the girls. The second set got rocky but with Eryn coming in behind me, I know that she can do great things.”
The senior was a 2017 All-Tournament team selection and said she figured the match would be pretty even.
“When we came in I knew we were going to be pretty evenly matched. We have four pretty solid hitters and the semis are never an easy game,” she said. “The first set was an amazing feeling and we had the momentum. Losing the second was really close and we tried to finish, but it wasn’t there for us,” she said. “The next two sets we did an amazing job finishing. The turning point was the rotation error and that worked out for us.”
The first set was back and forth through a 3-5 HTC lead. Freshman Kassi Randolph put a four-point string together giving the Crusaders a 13-6 lead before sending a serve deep and right for a sideout. Holy Trinity would stretch the lead to 20-11 on a kill by Boeding again from the left outside forcing a Gehlen timeout. Box was in the rotation trying to finish off the first set and got a kill on a nice set from Randolph to put the set away 25-15.
Ties were the theme of the second set with a total of 20 ties in the 26-28 Crusaders loss. Despite eight ties leading to an 11-11 score, the Crusaders never gave up the lead and the serve went back and forth. At 7-7 the two teams played a long rally that was capped when a Jay cleared a ball that seemed long, but landed on the back line. The Jays would take their first lead at 12-11 on an Aubrey Niles ace and a Langel error would push the lead to 15-13. The two squads would then tie at every single point until 26-26 when Box scored a kill to knot it up. After another long rally Livermore got a kill across the front of the net to put Gehlen with one point of tying the match. In the next rally another long shot caught the back line to give the Jays the win.
Leading up to the rotation error that wasn’t contested by Meyer, the Jays had all the momentum as senior Katie Peters had three kills to give Gehlen a 5-3 lead. HTC would benefit from a Jays’ net violation to get to 4-5, but the Jays would go 5-0 and steal all the wind from the HTC faithful in the balconies. Holy Trinity would battle back to 10-11 to bring the crowd back in but Peters and Niles would combine for three successful attacks to make it 14-11 when the rotation error was found. The improper rotation was a server who started play at 13 and 14 and both those points were nullifed setting the score at 11-12 Gehlen. The Crusaders took over from there.
“That just energized them,” Freesmeier said. We just said ‘here’s the break we were looking for, now let’s use it’.”
She said Box had her best tournament so far.
“She was on it today and she has that capability and we know it. The thing is – she believes in her teammates and they believe in her and that makes the difference.”
Randolph will be going into the title match as a freshman, but was in attendance in 2014 when her sister was on the state championship team in 2014 that featured Nebraska All-
American Mikaela Foecke.
“Knowing that my sister was able to win a state championship gives us hope,” Randolph said. I mean, I think we’re all nervous but once we get on the court we settle in. The seniors really help us and encourage us when we’re down.”
Senior Taylor Boeding said the rotation error was the turning point of the match, but the girls were able to finish and that was what made the difference.
“It was definitely a momentum stopper for them and we took advantage of that and took back the momentum,” Boeding said. “Box is a powerhouse on our team. She’s the one we look to when we’re lost and in tough situations. Not having her, we had to look inside ourselves and find the will to win and I think we did a great job of that in the third and fourth sets.”
The Crusaders bowed out of the 2017 tournament in the semis in straight sets to Janesville. Boeding said the Wildcats will be tough with last year’s player of the year Bree Thompson across the net.
“This means everything to me, the other seniors, and the whole team. Our goal was to get back to the championship and have the opportunity to win a title. Bree Thompson is a great player, we have to focus on our blocks and seeing where she’s gonna hit and just leave it all on the line.”
Freesmeier said the seniors have matured in each post-season match and facing the adversity of the second and first half of the third set showed their toughness.
“Our seniors are competitors, no doubt about it, and we had to find a way to take that competitiveness to some of our younger kids and do it in a way they felt comfortable. Our seniors – I saw them step up and I’ve seen them step up in the post season and just be good leaders. You can be a great hitter and a great passer, but until you see that leadership come out – that was big for us tonight.”
Anderson finished with 13 kills on 44 attacks with Box and Anderson being taken care of again by Randolph and sophomore Bailey Hellweg who combined for 45 assists on the night. The Crusaders only had two service errors but converted five aces on the night. Boeding led the way defensively with 22 digs, followed closely by Lawlor and senior Elyse Pothitakis with 18.
(Pen City Current will post more photos from the state title game on Friday.)