The second conference title in three years for the Marshalltown volleyball team required only three wins, but the last one didn't come easy.
Mason City provided the best challenge yet for the Bobcats, but in the end it was a four-set victory for MHS that cinched the inaugural Central Iowa Conference Northern Division title - and on Senior Night no less.
Eisha Oden recorded 25 kills - the third-highest single-match performance in Class 5A this season - and Marshalltown made off with the crown by scores of 25-18, 24-26, 25-20, 25-22.
T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE
Mason City middle hitter Alexis Harbaugh (13) goes up against the double block of Marshalltown seniors Madi Bellile (1) and Miranda Smith (11) during the first set of Tuesday’s Central Iowa Conference Northern Division volleyball match at the Roundhouse. MHS secured the conference crown with a 3-1 win over the Mohawks.
Mason City (12-20, 1-2) was the only team to take a conference set off the Bobcats (22-16, 3-0), who last won a CIML Iowa Conference crown in 2010. MHS swept Fort Dodge and Ames before closing out the newly aligned CIC North with a slow-developing victory over the Mohawks.
"I really don't enjoy the conference lineup but you do what you've got to do," MHS head coach Terri Westendorf said of the 19-team CIML's new look. "It does diminish (the conference title), but it feels good getting it. It was a goal of ours to win conference, but I wish it had more meaning to it."
The Bobcats were slow out of the gates in each of the first two sets, finally finding some sort of flow the second time through the rotation. MHS trailed 9-8 in the opening set before outscoring the Mohawks 16-9 the second time through. An Oden kill finished off the set, though fellow senior Lauren Mazour's five kills and a service ace helped the 'Cats get through their opening struggles.
Miranda Smith also had five kills in the set and Megan Major served up consecutive aces during a 5-0 Bobcat surge that came as a part of an 11-2 rally.
MHS used another 6-0 run to climb in front, 20-17, during the second set, but Mason City did not relent. The Mohawks dodged set point and scored four straight to take the game 26-24.
A trio of aces by freshman Leiah Paustian propelled MHS to a 22-17 lead during a back-and-forth third set, and a finishing ace from Smith scored the game three victory.
Marshalltown's best start of the night came in game four, when setter Madi Bellile found Smith and Oden in every-other fashion. The Bobcats pulled in front 15-7, weathered Mason City's 15-5 rally, and scored the last five points with Paustian at the service line again. A pair of Bellile dinks over the net served as rally-killers for the Mohawks, too.
"We pulled it out," Westendorf shrugged. "The thing that really defines how well we play is the confidence of the players that are out there on the court. ... You've got to expect (the seniors) to be the leaders, for as many seniors as we play, and for the most part I think they do a good job.
"It was seniors who came up with some big plays tonight, and Leiah Paustian did an excellent job of serving and keeping Mason City off-system."
Smith finished with 16 kills and only one error in 29 attempts for a .517 hitting percentage, while Mazour finished with 11 kills and a team-high 26 digs. Madi Bellile had 43 assists, 14 digs and five kills, while Morgan Bellile battled through illness to record 21 digs.
Smith had a pair of blocks to lead the front line, while Paustian was 22-for-22 serving with four aces. Smith added three aces, and Mazour and Major had two apiece.
Alexis Harbaugh led Mason City with 12 kills and two blocks, while Amanda Bennett had 11 kills and a block for the Mohawks, who were trying to force a three-way tie for the conference title.
"Anytime you can get the conference championship on Senior Night, that's a pretty good thing," said Westendorf. "Mason City is a very good team, they've played a lot of teams close. You can't mess around with a team like that.
"If you give them even a little bit, they're going to take it and run."
Marshalltown now heads to the postseason, going on the road Monday night to face Class 5A No. 9-ranked Cedar Rapids Kennedy on its home court.
"We've got some stuff to do if we're going to get anywhere in regionals," said Westendorf. "We need to be 100 percent."