Eyes on the prize
Grundy Center volleyball searching for more success at state
GRUNDY CENTER — When the Class 2A No. 3 Grundy Center volleyball team takes the court for their first-round matchup with Sidney today in the Iowa Girls’ High School State Volleyball Tournament, they will be stepping onto center stage for the seventh time in the last eight years at the U.S. Cellular Center.
While the Spartans have made appearing at state a habit over the last decade, they haven’t experienced as much success as they’d like to when it comes to the actual state matches. Each of the last three times Grundy Center has qualified, they’ve lost in the first round, and the Spartans have only made the finals one time in the last six appearances.
This team is different than those of the past, however, as the Spartans return every starter from last year’s state team that was eliminated by Western Christian, a familiar feeling for Grundy Center fans.
Spartans senior Landry Luhring, who has qualified for state three of her four years on the team, said her main goal is to make it out of the first round for the first time in her career.
“I’d definitely like to get further than I ever have before, and I think this team definitely has the capability and potential because we are very competitive and our chemistry is just undeniable,” she said.
Anyone who has watched this team play this season knows what Luhring is talking about. The bond Grundy Center’s girls have on the court is unmistakable, and it’s something that only comes from years of experience playing together.
Not only has the starting rotation of Luhring, her sister Kyah, Kylie Willis, Brooke Flater, Hailey Wallis, Sydney Mathews and Emerson Kracht been the same for two-straight seasons, that group has played together since they were in elementary school.
Spartans head coach Lori Willis said she’s know this was a special group ever since those early days playing together.
“Honestly, I think I saw that in them when they were in elementary. When those juniors were in sixth grade, I could see how the seniors were developing in seventh grade and I could see how the fifth graders were developing, which are the sophomores now, and I could sense that there was something special about them,” Willis said. “They are competitive, they have a lot of drive, they love to work together as a team, but the coolest thing about them is they love to be a part of something bigger than themselves, and that is what a team is all about.”
What Willis saw has translated wonderfully to the court this season, as Grundy Center finished the year at 36-6, including another conference win in the NICL West. A lot of that impressive record has to do with the Spartans’ diverse attack, as Landry, Kylie, Wallis, Kracht and Flater all have at least 150 kills or more on the year.
Because of those attack options, Willis said her girls feel extremely confident about their chances in the first round and beyond.
“I think they are really prepared for this round, I think they believe in themselves and they are the Western Christian now,” she said. “They feel like they are in the driver’s seat and that they have the drive, the mentality and the physicality that it takes to win a couple matches at state. We are really excited about that, I love it.”
Waiting to test that confidence out is Sidney, the No. 6 team in 2A that enters state at 31-5 on the year. The Cowgirls moved up from 1A for the first time this season and haven’t lost a step, completing their third-straight 30-win season and third-straight appearance in the state tournament.
Sidney’s Camryn McClintock leads the 2A field in aces with 65, and she finished 12th in the class in kills with 389.
Willis said the Cowgirls will pose a challenge in the opening match, but there are areas she feels her Spartans hold a decided advantage.
“I do like our matchup, I like that we win the height category, so that’s nice to see that we are taller than them on paper, but usually paper doesn’t matter when you are down at the state tournament,” Willis said. “It looks like they have good ball control, they have two good hitters and their setter does a good job of putting up a hittable ball. That’s really valuable, when your passers aren’t passing you to a target and she’s always putting up a hittable ball, then they are always able to attack.”
Where Willis said she specifically thinks her team will have an advantage is on the offensive end, as Sidney isn’t accustomed to seeing a quick, diverse attack.
“It looks like they have a good, solid defense,” Willis explained. “I am excited because it looks like they don’t have much experience against teams who run fast offenses and who are as diverse as us so as long as our ball control is there we will definitely be pushing that to create some chaos for them. Plus, the girls just love to play that way, so I am excited about that matchup.”
In preparation for the tournament, Grundy Center played a scrimmage last week against 1A No. 1 Janesville and 3A No. 6 Osage. Willis said getting out on the court against some quality teams before heading to state was a smart decision and it allowed her and the team to work on their plan of attack for Sidney.
“We wanted to maintain that high level against good competition, you can only simulate so much in your gym, you just have to play somebody else,” Willis said. “What I really like about those two teams we did matchup with in the scrimmage is Janesville is a lot like Sidney. I do think Janesville’s outsides are better than Sidney’s, but they are similar in height, defense and style so that was a great practice for us.”
Last season, the Spartans had options to choose from offensively, but it’s been the development of Hailey Wallis’ offensive prowess that Willis said has made a huge difference. Wallis has a .222 kill efficiency this season, compared to .139 last year, and she’s made strides defensively for the Spartans.
“You can check out all of my social media, I call her the X-factor because I really felt like she was going to be that player that would solidify this team, seal this team and complete this team,” Willis said of her junior hitter. “I really think she’s done a great job with that, and she’s just exciting. She jumps and she’s swinging really well, playing hard, and I think that’s been fun.”
Wallis said having someone like Willis who’s been around the block and seen lots of things on the court is a great asset to her development and to team’s success.”
“Just knowing that she always has our backs before every single game, she has all their stats lined up to let us know what’s going to be happening, and just knowing that she has our back is really reassuring,” Wallis said.
Grundy Center setter Sydney Mathews, who runs the offense that Willis calls from the sideline, said her relationship with the third-year Spartan head coach is important because of the comfort she feels coming to Willis with questions about how to handle certain situations.
“I always know that if I question anything then I can just go to her and she knows exactly what person we should set or what we should be doing with the ball,” Mathews said. “She just always has our backs and I can always rely on her if I need anything.”
Though Willis has only been at the helm of Grundy Center volleyball for three years, she was on the team as an assistant for many years before previous head coach Darwin Sents stepped down.
Learning behind Sents, who started this recent run of success for the Spartans, and other coaches she’s been involved with, Willis said she’s developed exactly what kind of coaching style she knows works. A style that revolves around respect and affection for her players.
“One thing I learned a long time ago is, with girls, you have to love them first,” Willis said. “That’s the foundation, that’s why I start in fourth grade and that’s why I’ve had these girls for so long. Once you lay that foundation that you love them unconditionally and that you love the player more than the jersey, they will do anything for you and I am willing to do anything for them. I never ask of them something I am not willing to do myself.”
Every athlete and coach with Grundy Center has their minds focused on the first round matchup with Sidney, but if the Spartans do make it past the Cowgirls they will have a likely match against Western Christian looming, the team that has eliminated Grundy Center four of the last six years the Spartans have been at state.
Willis said the Wolfpack have been the Achilles’ heel for the program for as long as she can remember, but if her girls get a shot at Western their luck could finally turn around.
“Obviously our number one goal is to get past the first round, then the next goal would be to get past Western Christian,” Willis said. “That is something this program has never done before, but these girls know they are extraordinary, they know they are special and they know they were born for great things.”
Though it’s tempting to look ahead to that possible semifinal match, Luhring as the lone senior in the starting rotation knows her team can’t look too far in the future, and she said the girls have their priorities in the right place.
“Right now we are just looking at one game at a time and we really hope we can win this first round,” Luhring said. “I think if we can get past the first round we can do great things.”
Grundy Center begins the quest for its first volleyball state title today when it takes on Sidney in the first round of the Iowa Girls’ High School State Volleyball Tournament in Cedar Rapids, starting at 4 p.m. on Court 2 at the U.S. Cellular Center.
Wednesday, Nov. 8
Dike-New Hartford (47-3) vs. Wapsie Valley (21-15), 2 p.m.
Council Bluffs St. Albert (27-3) vs. Unity Christian (24-10), 4 p.m.
Western Christian (37-6) vs. Iowa City Regina (28-8), 2 p.m.
Grundy Center (36-6) vs. Sidney (31-5), 4 p.m.