Washington Evening Journal
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BURLINGTON — Considering all that was lost from last year‘s Winfield-Mount Union team, namely seven seniors, it was a very successful volleyball season for the Wolves. It did not seem so judging from the faces and body language of the WMU players Monday at Father Minett Gymnasium.
The top-ranked Notre Dame Nikes secured a 25-14, 25-14, 25-18 home win over the Wolves in a Class 1A Region 7 semifinal.
For the Wolves and head coach David Pieart, it was a question of consistency. “We could fight with them for points. We can play defense with them for points. We hurt them offensively with points. We needed to be able to do it for more points than we could. They were far more consistent than we were.”
Notre Dame (34-8) advances to a regional final against Easton Valley (21-8) at 7 p.m. Wednesday at the Muscatine Fieldhouse.
Winfield-Mount Union will lose five seniors from this year’s 22-11 team. It was 21-7 last season. It advanced further in this year’s postseason and nearly equaled 2020’s Super Conference North Division record of 8-0, going 7-1. The Wolves avenged that one loss with Thursday’s defeat of Wapello after trailing 2-1 in sets.
The Wolves were unable to duplicate that rally, although they gave it a shot. After the Nikes pulled away from a 5-5 tie in the opening set to lead 18-7, Audrey Gipple connected on consecutive kills to start a Wolves run that made the score 21-14. Down six in the second set, the Wolves got within 12-10 on one of Morgan Grelk’s five kills. Down seven in the third, WMU made it to within 15-11 on a block by Keely Malone.
“Our last two playoff games we were pretty decent,” Pieart said.
“You get this late in the tournament all the teams are going to be good," Notre Dame coach Steven Davis said. "They are probably one of the bigger teams, size wise, that we have seen on this 1A level.”
Melina Oepping connected on one of her six WMU kills and Bradie Buffington smacked one of her five as the second set was tied at each of the first five points before the Nikes forged a 9-5 lead prompting a Pieart timeout. He also called time in the first and third sets when WMU trailed 12-6 and 11-6.
“It had nothing to do with the number of points we had or what kind of deficit we were facing or any rotational issues we had at the time,” Pieart said. “It was just a matter of trying to keep the game under control.” Another timeout down 19-11 didn’t derail the Nikes.
Any and all seniors — stars or starters or role players — on any high school sports team are key in how a team performs.
The Wolves came out inspired for the third set and took a 4-0 lead on an ace from Keetyn Townsley, then back-to-back blocks from Keely Malone and Buffington. They combined with Grelk to total nine blocks in the match.
“We knew they were going to get some blocks,” Davis said. “We had to just keep playing, just have to survive, get the W, and it doesn’t matter how you do it at this time of the year.”
“Getting the run and the lead to start the third was just a matter of being in better positions and blocking well,” Pieart said. “Once they started hitting around the blocks and adjusted, we had trouble adjusting.
“They are a very good team.”
Six straight points on the serve of Jenna Bentz and the Nikes had a lead they would not relinquish. Gabby Deery absolutely hammered an over pass for a 13-7 Notre Dame advantage.
“It is a factor,” Davis said. "They battle and scrap and battle and scrap and then she does something like that, it can be a deflator.“
What was more deflating was Oepping hit what looked to be a kill to make the score 19-15, but the point went to the Nikes at 20-14.
Townsley repeatedly tossed her body across the floor for 18 digs. Oepping had 10, Sloan and Aurey Meeker six each. Malone put up 20 assists.
Winfield-Mount Union seniors Annabelle Loveless, Neva Garcia, Grelk, Kwyn Rossiter and Carlee Sloan were “very instrumental in our season,” Pieart said. “Maybe they weren’t on the court as much, but in terms of practice, in terms of leadership, we owe a lot of our success to the five seniors that we had. The intangibles they provided were a big difference.”
The difference was something Pieart continually witnessed. He saw it everywhere: on the bench, on the bus, before and after practice, in timeouts, in practice, in huddles, in actions off the court. “They were great.”