BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – Ten in a row… and counting.
This year’s squad of Holy Trinity Crusaders, almost to a person, said at the beginning of the season they didn’t know what to expect after losing a group of seniors including Eryn Anderson and Emily Box, who both landed on the Class 1A state tournament team in 2018, and Elyse Pothitakis who anchored the squad’s libero spot.
But as is the case in most years with HTC volleyball, a season built on a challenging schedule and rigorous southeast Iowa volleyball circuit, has landed the Crusaders at the U.S. Cellular Center for the 10th straight year.
The HTC girls will kick things off Wednesday in Cedar Rapids against the No. 2 seed St. Albert Saintes of Council Bluffs.
Also in the bracket are perennial powerhouses Janesville, Gehlen Catholic, Sidney, North Tama, and Wapsie Valley. Springville jumped in at No. 8 after knocking off 9th-ranked Lisbon in the Region 7 finals 3-1.
Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier said this year’s squad is a “low key group” and will be taking Wednesday night’s contest as they have all year – just another volleyball game.
“We’re looking forward to it,” Freesmeier said. “It’s just another volleyball team I think to them.”
St. Albert gave Class 3A 2018 State Champion Kuemper Catholic, of Carroll, its only loss of the year in 2018. But the Saintes were knocked out of the Class 2A Region 3 bracket in the finals by Treynor 3-2. St. Albert graduated four seniors, but the bulk of the offense came from sophomore Allie Petry.
The Saintes moved to Class 1A just this year from 2A where they had gone to state seven of the past nine years. Petry, who had 327 kills in 795 attempts as a sophomore, has put away 424 of 1,021 attacks in 2019.
“She’s about 5’6″ but she can jump out of the gym,” said Asst. coach Tom Gendron, who put together the scouting report on the Saintes.
Freesmeier said at this point the Crusaders know what they’re capable of and will rely on a season of growing when they take the court Wednesday.
“We’re gonna continue to work on the little things in practice, come out aggressive, and go after it,” she said. “We have nothing to lose. These kids know the improvements they’ve made this year, so I just think they’re going to go on that and their confidence.
“This team is pretty low key. They take the next game and they just want to go in and play volleyball. If we continue to play like we have in the post season, we’re gonna have a pretty close match with them.”
Senior Avery Hopper is big part of the Crusaders’ blocks on defense and said HTC will have to close up blocks on Petry.
“She’s a really good hitter. We’re gonna have to work harder on our blocks and closing things up. She can jump really high,” Hopper said Friday.
Hopper said it was a team goal to make it back to state this year, but she said in the first part of the season, they weren’t sure how they would end up.
The Crusader started the year 9-6, but have since gone 19-4 almost knocking off Class 2A then No. 2 ranked Mediapolis, who finished the year 39-2. The Bulldogs were upset in the Class 2A Regional finals by Hudson 3-1.
“At the beginning of the season we weren’t very sure how we were going to end up this year,” Hopper said.
“Our main goal was to make it to state. We want to make those girls that have come here in the past proud of us. To achieve that goal is pretty awesome.
“If we keep playing our volleyball on our side, and not worry about what they’re doing, we’ll do well.”
Junior Marie Rauenbuehler, who’s held down the libero spot this year, said there was a lack of confidence at the beginning of the year, but practice and hard work have over come that.
“At the beginning of the season, we didn’t have a lot of confidence in ourselves and didn’t really communicate on the court,” she said.
“We just came into practice every day and worked hard every single day to get where we are now.”
Junior Claire Pothitakis, who leads the Crusaders with 356 kills on 1,005 attacks, said execution will be the key against the Saintes Wednesday. She said having the nine years of recent runs to state serves as motivation.
“I think it motivates us knowing that they’ve gone every single year so it just seems we’re always prepared to be there,” she said.
“But we need to do is make sure our block is ready and then execute the things we’ve been trained to do.”
Sophomore Kassi Randolph is following in the footsteps of her older sister Ali, who won a state title in 2014… as a sophomore. That year the Crusaders had senior Mikaela Foecke, who went to wild fame with the Nebraska Cornhuskers and is now playing for Team USA.
“I watched all of that and went to all my sister’s games. It calms my nerves to know they could do it and it makes me think we can do it, too,” Randolph said.
Randolph, who was an assist specialist last year, had 232 kills on 692 attacks this year, second best behind Pothitakis, said better communication and trust has brought the Crusaders to this point.
“I think Melissa just tells us to be motivated and be confident in yourself. This past few weeks we’ve been together every day and that’s helped us,” she said.
“Communication…talking to each other on and off the court and always being together at school. There’s just so much trust there right now.”
Rauenbuehler said reaching state 10 years straight is kind of hard to process.
“It’s really cool growing up watching all the teams play at the state tournament and now it’s our turn,” she said. “It’s kind of like a surreal moment. It’s really exciting but seeing those teams accomplish what they have will give us confidence.”
Senior Maille Sheerin has been a anchor serving this year with a 94% efficiency and a team-leading 60 aces, said the early losses helped the team gel and was a part of the team’s success as the year went on.
“Losing is a good thing sometimes. We needed that to learn that we have to be better and losing some matches at the beginning of the season was good for the team,” she said.
She said getting to state was the team’s goal, but as a senior she’s want it to last as long as possible.
“I want it all.” she said.
Freesmeier said it’s taken some time this year for the team to realize how good they can be and for cohesiveness to take hold.
It’s a different team every year, you have to find out what makes them tick. This team’s just a group of individuals that have come together. You see now the emotion on their faces.”
Pre-state events include a Meet-and-Greet Pork Loin Sandwich dinner at Aggie’s on the Square in West Point from 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. The team will be on hand for autographs starting at 5:40. A free will donation is encouraged.
An HTC High School send-off will be Wednesday after mass and an elementary send off will take place following at approximately 10:30 a.m.
Rauenbuehler said the early events help bring energy to the team.
“I think it’ll really gets us energized and gets us ready for Wednesday. There are so many people supporting us and we want to make them proud,” she said.
“I love it all,” said Randolph.
Sheerin said the events leading up to Wednesday are part of the memory of it all.
“I love it. It’s so fun. All these things with school and stuff – I love being really busy.”