Washington Evening Journal
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Washington, IA 52353
WAYLAND — Through two sets at WACO High School on Tuesday night, the Winfield-Mount Union volleyball team looked dead in the water. As it turns out, the Wolves were just waiting to pounce.
After a dominant first two sets for the Warriors, WMU caught lightning in a bottle in Set 3, and that fire never burned out as the Wolves came back to win in five (16-25, 10-25, 25-20, 25-11, 15-5), scoring a monster win in a rivalry that had taken a five-year rest, and leaping to the top of the Southeast Iowa Super Conference North Division in the process.
“It was mental,” said WMU head coach David Pieart. “We had to sit and relax. We had to stop paying attention to the scoreboard. We had to stop being worried about making mistakes and just go out there and play.”
If the Wolves were looking at the scoreboard in the first hour of play, they saw a lot of points pile up for the blue side of the court. WACO never trailed in the first set, and after falling behind 4-1 in the second, ended the game on a 24-6 run.
The Warriors burned the Wolves again and again on kills by Emma Wagler and Ellah Kissell, who controlled the net for WACO for two sets. Marie Farmer closed out the second with a double-digit serve streak that included four aces, and WACO seemingly was in full control of the first WACO-WMU conference clash since 2016.
But in between games, something sparked on the Winfield-Mount Union sideline.
“We had a little speech together after the first two sets,” said WMU senior Melina Oepping. ‘We just kicked it into gear, figured out what we were doing and ultimately just started playing our game.“
The Wolves battled to an 8-3 lead early in the third set, thanks in part to service aces from Aurey Meeker and Keetyn Townsley. WACO would score the next three to cut the lead to 8-6 on a Grace Coble ace, but the Wolevs held the lead throughout, and a trifecta of kills by Bradie Buffington ended the set 25-20 to the red.
With momentum already shifting, WMU got a major spark from left-handed junior Kailey Neil, who placed the ball just right, collecting four kills in the first 10 points, giving the Wolves a 10-5 lead and turning their third-set spark into an all out blaze.
“She wasn’t originally our outside,” said Oepping. “Our outside got hurt, so to see her step up and just do her job, and get the ball in, was so exciting.”
WACO coach Jay Coble credited Neil with turning the tide for his rivals across the net.
“I thought that putting the left-handed left side in changed it all,” Coble said. “She just started tipping and rolling stuff at all different angles, and we didn’t read it well enough.”
WACO was able to rally back to cut the lead to 10-9, but a Lily Freeman block stopped the Warriors from tying the game up, and WMU would end the fourth on a 15-2 run, one that was ended on Townsley’s third ace of the set.
In the deciding fifth, the Wolves showed no signs of slowing down. WMU won nine of the first 10 points, Buffington collected five kills in the last six points, and WMU moved to 6-0 in North Division play, handing WACO its only conference loss in the process.
“It was really exciting,” said Buffington. “We all just kind of gave it our all, and didn’t give up.”
Buffington finished the night with 21 kills and 24 digs. Oepping had 15. Keely Malone assisted 40 of the Wolves’ 42 points. Townsley collected seven aces and 23 digs.
Kissell and Wagler each had 11 kills for WACO. Coble had 26 assists and three aces. Jocelyn Fulton collected 28 digs, and Farmer’s four aces led the team.
The win gives WMU a stranglehold on the North Division. WMU has two games to go, a home game against Pekin (2-4) on Thursday and a road contest against Wapello (6-1) next week. If they close it out, it will be the second North Division championship in three years.
With help, WACO could still taste a share of the title. The Warriors would need to knock off Columbus (3-3) and Highland (4-2) in their last two SEISC North contests, and have Wapello beat WMU at the end of the year to set up a three-way tie.
It was the second win for WMU over WACO this season. The Wolves swept the Warriors in tournament play earlier this year, but Tuesday night marked the first regular season game the two had played since 2016, as WACO played in the South Division from 2017-2021.
Although one could suffice the talented Warriors quads of the late 2010s could have had something to say about it, WMU has now beaten their rivals to the West 18-straight times. The Warriors last won in 2008.
“It’s fantastic,” said Pieart about the rivalry’s renewal. “The crowd was against us, but it’s great to have an enthusiastic student crowd there, and to get to watch good volleyball. It’s been a long time since we’ve played them in a normal conference game.”