BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
BONDURANT – The Holy Trinity Catholic volleyball team made what’s becoming an annual trip to Bondurant this weekend, as a measuring stick to see how the Crusaders stack up against some of the best big schools in the state.
Melissa Freesmeier’s perennial state contenders are ranked No. 1 for the first time since 2014 in Class 1A, the same year coincidentally, they won the the Class 1A title, and put seven returning starters on the floor at Bondurant’s Skip Anderson Volleyball Tournament Saturday.
In opening pool play, the Crusaders rolled Ames 21-16, 21-9 and then downed Woodward Granger 21-10, 21-17 before falling to Des Moines Roosevelt 19-21, 21-23 to go 2-1 into bracket play.
HTC ran into a bunch of 4A schools with an early loss to No. 15 Bondurant-Farrar 15-21, 15-18., then went three sets with No. 12 Pella 21-14, 17-21, 8-15, before knocking off No. 14 Carroll 17-21, 21-13, 15-6 to split the day 3-3.
Junior Kassi Randolph set the pace at the net for Holy Trinity with 72-79 hitting and 30 kills. Randolph also had a team high assists tied with senior Bailey Hellweg with 42 each. Randolph was also 37-37 serving with one ace and had eight blocks.
Senior libero Maria Rauenbuehler had 54 digs to lead HTC and was 46-47 serving with two aces. Senior Claire Pothitakis was 58-69 hitting with 24 kills. Freshman Mary Kate Bendlage was 40-52 hitting with 14 kills in her first varsity action.
Seniors Katie Denning and Hellweg combined for 25 kills and sophomore Brooke Mueller had 10. Mueller led the Crusaders with 10 aces on the day.
Freesmeier said the lofty preseason status is a reflection of how hard the girls worked to shake off a rough start and return to the state tournament in 2019.
The Crusaders bounced 2nd seed Council Bluffs St. Albert in four games in the first round at the U.S. Cellular Center and then fell to Wapsie Valley in three games the next night. Wapsie Valley would lose in four in the championship match to Sidney.
Pothitakis was named to the Class 1A All-Tournament team and 1st team all-State. Randolph was 2nd team All-State last year in 2019 and 1st Team all district along with Pothitakis and Rauenbuehler.
“We finished strong last year, Freesmeier said of the No. 1 ranking.
“Our kids stepped up at the end of the year and seven of those kids are coming back on the court and I think that was a big thing. They saw that we are a deeper team this year.”
With the coronavirus bugging everyone’s preseason, the Crusaders were able to get back in the gym, after holding several masked practices outside, on Monday, again in masks.
Randolph said the extra precautions have made things a bit more difficult, but the culture of the Crusaders program wasn’t affected.
“Everyday we come into the gym, hold everyone accountable and work as hard as we can to reach our ultimate goal,” she said.
“It’s a bit different – harder and hotter, but we have to come into the gym like we’re gonna play the whole season.”
Pothitakis said the No. 1 ranking is both good and bad.
“It makes team shoot for us, but we just keep working hard practicing and don’t really think about it that much.”
Freesmeier said it’s nice for the seniors to have that recognition coming into the season, but she said at the end of the night, you’ve to score more points than your opponent.
“You gotta target on your back for sure, but the way we started and the way we finished, it’s a big tribute to them. Their hard work paid off and they’re being noticed,” Freesmeier said.
With the Iowa High School Girls Athletic Union cancelling soccer, where most of the girls stay conditioned for the upcoming summer and fall sports season, Freesmeier said there was an anxiousness to get back on the floor, even twice a day.
“They couldn’t wait to get into practice and no one’s complaining about early morning practices. I see each one of them digging and digging and digging deeper each day to get better,” she said.
Freesmeier is in her 29th year of coaching and has taken 18 teams to the state tournament with titles in 1996 at Marquette and 2014 at HTC.
The Crusaders again will look to Rauenbuehler to anchor the back line defensively as libero along with senior Taylor Crabtree and junior Anna Sobczak.
“Anna saw a lot of time last year for different reasons. But those three will be the defense and the glue that keeps us together,” Freesmeier said.
With Pothitakis and Randolph up front will be a rotation of juniors Hellweg and Katie Denning, along with sophomores Mueller and Kayla Box, and freshman Bendlage and Natalie Randolph.
“Those two freshman are looking to get on the court and that’s what makes it fun,” Freesmeier said.
Southeast Iowa should be a one of the better regions for volleyball this year with New London ranked No. 4 in Class 1A. Freesmeier said West Burlington, Burlington Notre Dame and Danville will all be teams to recon with during the year.
“That’s great because we have to go in every night and we have to compete. You can’t have a bad night, you have to go.”