BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
FORT MADISON – The matches are coming at a frenzied pace now and that’s just the way Holy Trinity Catholic volleyball coach Melissa Freesmeier likes it.
With Saturday’s loaded Keokuk tournament just two days away, the Crusaders are starting to hit their stride despite some sluggish starts in a 25-21, 25-16, 25-13 sweep of Van Buren in Southeast Iowa Superconference volleyball action Thursday.
Now the Class 1A top-ranked Crusaders ready for a Keokuk tournament that features No. 3, and undefeated New London (5-0), Central Lee and Notre Dame among others.
Freesmeier said the season is in full swing and this pace benefits the Crusaders.
“Absolutely, it gives the kids something to be excited about and hopefully improve every night – that’s our goal.
Holy Trinity had a hard time shaking the Warriors early on in each set as Van Buren held leads off the whistle in two of the three sets.
In the first frame the two battled through seven ties with the last coming when freshman Mary Kate Bendlage sent kill long for 12-12 tie. Bendlage was 13-15 attacking with four kills on the night in full rotation.
The freshman said she doesn’t feel the pressure of being a newcomer to the No. 1 team in the state.
“I feel like the seniors are always wanting everyone to do their best, but everyone on the team has talent and we’re all close to each other so there’s no pressure here,” she said.
“Just knowing that everyone we go against is out to get us, and knowing the team is taking me under their wing is really comforting. I’m not scared to go out on the court. If you mess up, you take a butt chewing from coach and get back out there.”
HTC would handle things from there. Up 14-12 Freesmeier called a time out and out of the break Holy Trinity would open up a four point lead at 20-16. Van Buren would close the gap to 3 on a kill by senior Kalyn Tuttle. But a series of a couple of errors at and a double put HTC up 24-21 before Kassi Randolph smacked on down the left line for the winner.
Van Buren put the Crusaders in a hole the 2nd set 0-4 but Randolph serving again brought the girls around. Pothitakis came from the outside and scored a kill to the center floor to tie things at 4.
The Warrior would catch a lead again at 10-9 when the Crusaders’ Randolph, Pothitakis and sophomore Brooke Mueller had consecutive attacks sail out.
HTC would outscore Van Buren 16-6 the rest of the way. Pothitakis would get three kills in the final six points, and Randolph had a nifty save falling down at the net to keep the set point alive.
Holy Trinity got down 1-7 to start the third set when a Claire Pothitakis swat went long right. But the senior rebounded on the next point with a push kill that found wood in Van Buren’s middle.
Maria Rauenbuehler then scored six straight with the Warriors misfiring on four of four attacks in the run. A kill by Bendlage gave the Crusaders a 10-8 lead before Randolph took HTC on 17-3 run including 4 aces to put the game out of reach 21-10.
A Pothitakis kill at 24-13 put the match away.
Freesmeier said she like to see the girls get a better start. The Crusaders struggled slightly out of the gate against Fort Madison and Notre Dame earlier this week.
“We’re talking about how we get them to respond quicker and then put on the gas, but Van Buren did some great things. They were swinging well and Manning is just everywhere,” Freesmeier said.
“We’re not real smooth right now, but we’re doing some things we’ve been working on. We served really well – only missed three tonight. In the last couple games it’s been a lot more than that, so were better tonight in that department.”
Pothitakis was 26 of 31 attacking with 15 kills. Randolph was 18 of 18 serving with four aces, 14 assists, five kills and two blocks. Bailey Hellweg was 18 of 19 serving with three aces and eight digs on the night. Rauenbuehler had 25 digs from the libero spot.
Saturday’s tournament at Keokuk starts with a bang at Keokuk Middle School with a 9 a.m. matchup with New London. The Crusaders take on Keokuk at the High School at 9:45, Notre Dame at the Middle School at 11:15, meet up with Van Buren again at 12:45 and then finish up with Central Lee at 2:15 p.m.