BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
CEDAR RAPIDS – The Holy Trinity Catholic Crusaders don’t talk about seedings or rankings, they just go out and face the next team across the net.
The ladies in royal blue advanced to the state tournament semifinals for the fourth year in a row with a dominant win over 2nd-ranked Council Bluff St. Albert 25-16, 25-23, 19-25, 25-15.
The win pits HTC against Wapsie Valley, the 6th seed who knocked off four-time champion Janesville in the late game. The Crusaders/Wapsie Valley match will start at 6 p.m. on Thursday at the U.S. Cellular Center.
The Crusaders gave the State Tournament its 3rd No. 7 seed upset over the No. 2s in the quarters after Western Dubuque and Pleasant Valley knocked off the 2nd seeds in Classes 4A and 5A.
Southeast Iowa Superconference Van Buren was a 7th seed and fell in three sets Wednesday afternoon to Beckman Catholic 25-18, 25-11, 25-14 to end their year.
Head Coach Melissa Freesmeier said the upsets are something the coaches chat about, but they don’t share it with the girls.
“No, we don’t tell them, but the coaches were like, ‘hey guess what happened… oh, guess what happened’,” Freesmeier said.
“I know that right now this 1A is up for grabs. Whoever’s playing hot’s got a shot, and right now were pretty hot.”
Junior Claire Pothitakis had three kills to start the first set as the two teams exchanged points to a 6-6 tie, but then Kassi Randolph, Katie Denning, and Brooke Mueller got consecutive kills to push it to 9-6.
The Saintes then committed a defensive error and HTC held a 4-point advantage at 10-6. The Crusaders would stretch the lead to 16-9 after a Randolph ace, followed by a net violation and St. Albert’s Allie Petry’s attack went wide for the seven-point cushion.
A big kill from senior Avery Hopper went out left off a block and HTC was up 21-15. Randolph and Pothitakis cleaned up the set with kills and the 25-16 win.
Pothitakis had five kills in the first set and Denning added three.
“We came out ready to play and I think nobody had any nerves and if there were any, they were gone by the first point or two,” Denning said of the quick start.
“I think we played well as a team and hit all the spots we wanted to hit.”
HTC jumped out to a quick 5-1 lead in the second set, highlighted by a block of Petry’s outside attack from Denning and Pothitakis. But the Saintes would come flying back with kills from Petry and sophomore Lauren Williams.
St. Albert, getting a sense that HTC’s block may be troublesome, went to a lighter style of play, pushing the ball over the blocks. Williams was able to slide the ball to hold the HTC defense for the Saintes’ first lead of the set at 6-5.
A back-and-forth affair ensued, but a Hellweg ace knotted the set at 12. Petry would get a kill and Hopper would respond with a point for a 13-13 tie.
Pothitakis would score at 20-18 forcing St. Albert coach Angie Lantz to call a time out, but out of the break the Saintes would commit a double hit and have an attack go wide to give HTC a 22-19 lead.
Williams would get a kill to tie it back up at 23, but HTC would get the next two for the 25-23 win.
The Saintes would get the win in the 3rd set after jumping out to a 12-7 lead that HTC wouldn’t recover from. The Crusaders forced a tie at 16 and then took the lead on a Pothitakis ace, but St. Albert would go on an 8-2 run led by Petry finding lines and corners and backing the HTC defense up for the 19-25 loss.
Freesmeier said the girls slipped into some casual play in the final points of the third set, a message she pounded home during the break.
“I just said, ‘What gotcha here?’,” she said. “We gave them game 3 and we had an opportunity to win it there. We weren’t aggressive and were hitting free balls all over the place. I think they took that to heart.”
The Crusaders raced out to a 12-2 lead put before the Saintes would put together a 5-2 run that turned into a 10-5 run and cut the lead to 18-13. But HTC got two kills from Pothitakis and two from Hopper in the final seven points to end the match.
Hopper said she was proud of the win and everyone contributed.
“We’ve been working really hard and we’re really proud of ourselves right now,” she said.
“We played amazing as a team. Our front hitters were spot on and the back row put the ball in the right spots.”
Junior Maria Rauenbuehler had the unenviable task of picking up Petry’s lasers all night and ended up with 15 digs to lead the team. Freesmeier had a one-word synopsis of Rauenbuehler’s play.
“She was a stud.”
“She picked up balls and was reading the ball well. Without that defense, what are we going to do?”
Rauenbuehler said she just wanted to keep pushing.
“We were really excited and getting pumped up in the hotel room before the game. We just wanted to push as hard as we could because we knew we could win.”
Pothitakis finished with a team high 22 kills and a sparkling 39% efficiency, and contributed four aces in the win.
The senior said rankings are out the window, and have been for the whole year.
“I really don’t think we thought about ranks and seeds,” she said. “We just thought they were another team on the court and we needed to beat ’em.”
“Claire had a big night,” Freesmeier said. “She just kept switching it up. We’ve been working on that and she listened. Our setters can distribute the ball and kept moving it around and kept St. Albert on their toes.”
Freesmeier said the tournament is wide open and the upsets prove that point and how big volleyball is around the state.
“Volleyball is just huge anymore and it’s anybody’s ball game. These kids. . . all the way through – you look at any game on the court – it’s state-caliber and fun to watch and you can’t relax… ever.”
Freesmeier is making her 10th straight appearance at the state tourney with the Crusaders, including a state title in 2014. She also has a 1991 state title with West Point Marquette, before the school combined under the Holy Trinity Catholic name. The 1991 title was when the state only had two classes, 1A and 2A.