TAMA - A year after having its state tournament streak stopped at four by the NICL West's best, the Mount Vernon volleyball squad wasn't about to lose to one of the rest.
The 10th-ranked Mustangs made good on all of their late-game leads in finishing off South Tama in straight sets Thursday night, knocking the host Trojans out in the Class 3A Region 7 semifinals, 25-20, 25-20, 25-14.
An inexperienced Mount Vernon club got swept by NICL West Division powerhouse Grundy Center in last November's 2A regional final in Vinton. Another year better, the Mustangs (26-10) moved past a Trojan contingent that tied for third in the final conference standings but still maintained hopes of advancing into Tuesday's regional finals.
T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE
South Tama senior Jade Rohach (5) goes up for the kill attempt against Mount Vernon’s Hannah Whitley (20) during the first set of Thursday’s Class 3A regional semifinal in Tama. Tenth-ranked Mount Vernon prevailed in a three-set sweep.
But each time it seemed South Tama (15-14) had its chance to take a lead, Mount Vernon snatched it back.
"They were very scrappy, they got to a lot of balls," STC head coach Michelle Bradley said of the Mustangs. "We stayed aggressive and they were digging up what we were throwing at them."
South Tama stood toe-to-toe with Mount Vernon throughout the first two sets. STC led the opening game 14-13 after back-to-back kills by Paige Van Dyk and Jade Rohach, but Mustangs middle hitter Hannah Whitley converted a tip on a slide attack over the same two Trojans' double block, and Mount Vernon made off with the next six points as well.
Rohach quickly picked up a shadow in Whitley, who sniffed out a 31 set and blocked STC's big hitter during that 7-0 Mustang surge. South Tama fought back to within 24-20 with a pair of kills by Trisha Walz, but a kill from the middle by Alli Platte put the first set to bed, 25-20.
A pair of 5-0 runs by Mount Vernon opened up the margin during game two, but South Tama remained within striking distance.
Another late run propeled by Rohach and Walz got the Trojans to within 23-20, but an ill-timed service error for STC and a finishing kill by Chelsey Schirm staked the Mustangs to a 2-0 lead.
The third set started as an uphill battle for South Tama, and it seemed to wear down the Trojans emotionally. Only twice during the entire game did STC score two points or more consecutively, as Mount Vernon's solid back-row play gave the Mustangs ample opportunities on offense.
And their balanced and efficient attack came through for them, putting them in Tuesday's regional final against No. 8 West Liberty (28-9) at Cedar Rapids Prairie.
"They were able to separate from us," Coach Bradley said. "We'd make a run but then we'd make some tiny mistakes."
Mount Vernon led the third set by as many as eight early, and then the Mustangs finished it off with an 8-2 run.
Whitley finished with nine kills to lead her team, while Platte, Schirm and Emma Cochrane had eight kills apiece.
Platte and Whitley both had two blocks, while Claire Pettinger posted two of the Mustangs' five service aces.
Bradley accounted for South Tama's only two service aces. She also led with 14 assists while Madison Baack tallied 11.
Libero player Riley Craun came up with 14 digs to lead the Trojans, Rohach had 12, Walz nine and Samantha Holtz had eight.
Walz also paced the STC attack with 10 kills while Holtz and Rohach both notched seven.
Van Dyk accounted for three kills and Emily Martin added two, but Mount Vernon's ever-present block and steady defense didn't let the Trojans get it going.
"We usually have a pretty decent back row attack, we always have that option, but things just weren't rolling our way tonight," Coach Bradley said.
Holtz accounted for a match-high three blocks and Rohach had another but was held well below her 1.73 blocks per set average.
South Tama as a whole had trouble penetrating over the net with its block, and Mount Vernon made good on its swings.
The Mustangs improved to 3-0 against teams from the North Iowa Cedar League this year, including Monday's first-round sweep of East Marshall.
Last year's 1-3 tally included a 2-0 loss to South Tama during the Cedar Rapids Jefferson tournament.
The season-ending defeat was the final prep volleyball match for STC seniors Rohach, Craun and Bradley.