Tigers, Warriors 1 win away

No. 11 New London, WACO play for state tournament berth

WACO’s Ellah Kissell (1) hits an attack past Lisbon’s Ella Clark (3) as she tries to block during the third game of their Class 1A regional semifinal match at Lisbon High School in Lisbon on Monday. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)
WACO’s Ellah Kissell (1) hits an attack past Lisbon’s Ella Clark (3) as she tries to block during the third game of their Class 1A regional semifinal match at Lisbon High School in Lisbon on Monday. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

Throughout the regular season, both the New London and WACO volleyball teams have shown state-caliber potential. Tonight, the Tigers and Warriors will aim to hit it.

Both Henry County teams will be in Class 1A regional final action at 7 p.m. New London will be at Evans Middle School in Ottumwa, where they will face off against No. 5 Southeast Warren, and WACO will take on No. 14 Notre Dame at Mt. Pleasant High School. By the end of the day, the area could represent as much as 25 percent of the Class 1A state tournament field, or as little as 0.

The Tigers come into tonight’s finals at 21-7. New London is riding a seven game winning streak and has dominated its regional games to this point. After earning a first-round bye due to a COVID forfeit, the Tigers swept Moravia in the quarterfinals and did the same to Melcher-Dallas in the semis.

New London’s Region 5 final opponent has strung together quite the winning streak of its own. Southeast Warren enters the game with a 25-0 record. The fifth-ranked Warhawks have lost just two sets all season long, and they crushed their previous postseason opponents, sweeping East Union and Southeast Valley.

The Tigers are powered by a stacked group up front. Sophomore middle hitter Keaura Williams leads the way with 212 kills, and three others have eclipsed the 100-kill mark. Senior Sofie Reighard will return from quarantine as the team’s second-leading hitter, with 132 kills. Junior Paris Wilka has 125, and sophomore Natalie Burden is right behind her, at 116.

Senior libero Kyra Linkin leads the team with 317 digs. The team has recently switched up its defense, and Linkin says that change has steered the team’s recent success in the back row.

“We just recently changed our defense to perimeter, and I feel like we’ve adjusted to that,” Linkin said. “It works better for us.”

The Tigers’ defense will need to be on its toes against Southeast Warren. Warhawk sophomore Alivia Ruble has 221 kills this season, and she is one of three players over 100 kills.

While New London plays Southeast Warren for the first time all season, WACO will get a familiar foe. The Warriors take on No. 14 Notre Dame in the Region 8 final. The Nikes upended the Warriors in four sets (23-25, 25-19, 25-19, 26-24) when they met in Wayland earlier this month.

WACO is led by senior Morgan Graber, who has been one of the best players in Southeast Iowa this season. Graber has 343 kills on the year, including 19 in WACO’s thrilling five-set semifinal win over Lisbon. Molly McLaughlin has 170 kills on the year, and both Lona Farrier (127) and Ellie Miles (122) have eclipsed the 100-kill mark.

Sophomore Grace Coble has been huge for WACO in her first year at starting setter, dishing out 675 assists so far. Senior libero Aubri Garnsey leads the defense with an impressive 455 digs.

Notre Dame has two hitters over 200. Gabby Deery leads the team with 257 kills, and Katy Stephens has 229. The Nikes are a lot more dangerous now, with transfers Josie and Jenna Bentz coming in from across the river. Josie led the team with 26 kills in Notre Dame’s five-set victory over No. 8 Holy Trinity on Monday night.

WACO head coach Jay Coble said Notre Dame would be the favorite in Region 8 before the tournament started, citing the addition of the Bentz sisters, who were recently granted eligibility to play, but have only appeared in 11 of the Nikes’ 21 games.

WACO will ride a three-game winning streak into the regional final, all regional tournament wins. The Warriors breezed through Sigourney and North Mahaska, sweeping both, before going the distance with Lisbon.

Notre Dame has won 11 games in a row leading up to the regional final. The Nikes have yet to lose with the lineup with their full lineup. Among those wins were a five-set victory over West Burlington, which forced the Falcons to split the conference title, and a five-set thriller over HTC on Monday, which eliminated the top seed in Region 8.

When the dust settles, only the Top-8 teams in Class 1A will remain. Brackets for the state tournament will be announced after all regions have been settled.