Rebels trying to stop Wildcats’ state run
REINBECK — Last year the Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball season came to a close in the regional quarterfinals with a three-set loss to eventual Class 1A state champion Janesville.
The Rebels get a chance to avenge that loss tonight when they play the Wildcats in the opening round of the 1A bracket in the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament at the U.S.
Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
Janesville is looking for its fourth-straight state title and is led by senior Bree Thompson, who leads the entire state in kills with 547, but G-R senior Meriah Wittgreve said the Rebels know what Thompson is good at.
“We are a completely different team than we were last year, we only have a couple of returning starters, and three of us from this team played for the same club team as Bree Thompson last club season so we did spend an entire year watching her at a very high level,” she said. “We all know what she can do, she has a lot more tools in her toolbox this year so it’s kind of an advantage having three of us knowing and watching her throughout the club season.”
Wittgreve will be the first line of defense against Thompson and the other Wildcat hitters, along with girls like Justina Eggers, Saari Kuehl, Rachael Scarf and Haleigh Berendes as front-line blockers.
In their regional final win over Ar-We-Va, the Rebels were able to frustrate the No. 4 hitter in 1A in Emilee Danners for the most part. G-R finished with nine total blocks in the win, led by Wittgreve with four.
Gladbrook-Reinbeck head coach Paula Kelley said it will take a good effort from the entire defense if they want to make it into the state semifinals.
“If we can control the ball when we get the ball on our side of the net, which is going to be our defense, which is going to need solid blocking. If we can get our passing up and we can do our things with the ball, our offensive kids will find holes,” she said.
Blocking has come a long way for the Rebels this season, particularly during their playoff run, and Eggers said that has to do with how much emphasis they put on blocking in practice.
“We have been working on blocking a lot, before we just used to do hitting lines but now we throw in blockers to help us follow the hitters, and the hitters can move around the blockers. It meshes together during practice,” she said. “I love blocking so much, when I get that ball and it just goes straight down and none of the other team can get to it, it’s amazing.”
When the ball does get into the back row, the Rebels have a good group of girls ready to dive for the dig. Sophomore libero Alyssa Morgan and senior defensive specialists Rachel Cooley and Jada Schlampp have solidified the G-R defense as the year as gone on, and Kelley said they deserve a lot of credit for this state tournament appearance.
“They are learning, they are still adjusting, but you are talking Alyssa who played at the freshman/sophomore level last year, and Rachel and Jada had only junior varsity experience last year,” Kelley said. “You’re having three kids with no varsity experience last year running my whole back line, and the amount of growth they’ve had this year is amazing. That’s what has gotten us here this year, you can win with hitting but not if you can’t stop the other team. Defensively I have been very pleased with where we’ve come.”
Morgan leads the team in digs with 260 while Cooley is fourth with 129 and Schlampp is sixth with 66, impressive considering she’s played about half the sets as most everyone else.
Not only did Morgan not have any varsity experience this year, she had never played libero in high school before this season.
“It wasn’t that hard because I wasn’t that good of a hitter, I don’t have the height,” she said of the adjustment. “I practiced a lot as a libero with my club volleyball team and in private practices with my trainer, so that helped so much to become the libero that I am now. I became a whole different player from last year to where I am now.”
Cooley said while she and her fellow back-line players might not get as much recognition, they still feel a lot of pride watching the team succeed.
“Although we don’t get talked about a lot with, ‘oh they had that amazing pass,’ it’s just kind of fun to see Saari get that awesome hit because it’s kind of like, ‘I was a part of that.’ That’s our role and it’s fun,” she said.
Schlampp gives Cooley a lot of credit for not just being a great defender, but for being an important leader on the court.
“I remember last game Rachel just looked at me and Alyssa and saw the fear in our faces but she said, ‘you guys just need to stop being timid.’ Literally after that I was kind of upset, but then I realized that was what we needed to do,” Schlampp said. “We have nothing to lose, we need to go all out and do what we can. We know we can do it.”
When the defense is able to get under the ball and get the pass over, it will come down to senior setter Madison Denny-Weber to find where to attack. She said it’s nerve-wracking going against a defense that will be as tough as the Wildcats, but she has faith in the team’s offensive prowess.
“I have to be perfect on every set, there is no room for mistakes at this point. Practicing is crucial to this, you have to have it,” Denny-Weber said. “I am confident and I’m confident in my hitters, which makes us pair perfectly. I know if I can get the ball to them they can smack it down.”
Denny-Weber is rich with options on who to set the ball to, however, led by the No. 2 hitter in 1A in Kuehl, who currently has 439 kills on the year.
Kelley said Kuehl has made an incredible improvement from her freshman to her sophomore season, which has opened up the team’s ability to attack from virtually everywhere.
“She is growing and learning every day,” Kelley said. “She’s learning new things, she’s finding new spots, and rather than looking at us she’s getting more confident on where to find those spots. She needs to keep doing what she’s doing but the rest of the cast also needs to step up.”
Kuehl said her development comes from a genuine joy in practicing and making herself better.
“I like the gym and I love volleyball so I just want to do it,” she said. “I feel like I have more hand control now.”
As Kelley said, it takes more than one good hitter to have a good team, and Berendes, Wittgreve, Eggers and Scarf have all stepped up for some important attacks all season for the Rebels.
“Meriah had an excellent last game, she had eight kills which matched her season best. Haleigh was at a high number and both Rachael and Justina came up with kills,” Kelley said. “We know Saari and Thompson for Janesville are going to get most of the sets, that’s just the way it is, but if we can get those other cast to start finding some holes and be productive on those when they get their chance, then I think it will be a really good game.”
Berendes gave a lot of credit for the team’s variety of offensive weapons to the sets they get from Denny-Weber.
“It’s important for us to have multiple choices for hitters. Madison does a good job of finding the good hitters and she knows when one is on so she will set to that hitter,” Berendes said.
Scarf also plays an important role in service, where she has been particularly on fire of late. In the team’s four regional playoff victories, Scarf was 56-for-57 in service with six aces, including an important 18-for-18 in the regional final against Ar-We-Va.
“It’s been really good lately, at the beginning of the season I missed a couple by serving out the back but now I kind of just get them over to the spot that [coach Kelley] tells me,” Scarf said.
What truly impressed Kelley about the Rebels’ win in the regional final was their ability to fill in roles when injuries occurred. During the third set with the match tied at 1-1, Morgan suffered an ankle injury and the girls had to step up and fill in her role, which they did well enough to finish the set on an 18-8 run.
Again in the fourth, Kuehl hit her head hard diving for the ball and had to come out with G-R trailing 22-19, but Belen Ellenberger and Stephanie Kehoe both stepped onto the court for the first time all game and helped even things at 22-22.
“That was the first time in a game that we have lost a kid during a game for the most part,” Kelley said. “When Alyssa came out we were behind, but when we came back in we were tied or had the lead. The same thing when Saari came out, we were behind by three, but when she came back in we were tied at 22-22. The kids stepped up and played, and that’s something we haven’t had to do this season. That’s not anything that you can teach, but they stepped it up.”
It will take an entire team effort for the girls to stop the three-time defending 1A state champions, but Wittgreve said they are at their best when their backs are against the wall.
“We are a very fluctuating team, we usually play to the level of our competitors, so going into a game with a team searching for their fourth straight state championship, they are going to be hungry,” she said. “They are going to want it, they are going to play hard and in turn that will make us play hard. I am excited to see what we can pull off under that kind of pressure.”
Kelley is planning for this to be a classic matchup between two of the top eight teams in the state, and her girls should feel confident going in.
“We are in the top eight just like they are, so at this point whoever plays the better game is going to win,” she said. “It doesn’t matter the rankings, that’s what I tell the kids, it doesn’t matter your record or rankings at this point. Everyone is 0-0 and on any given day anyone can be beat.”
Gladbrook-Reinbeck and Janesville with meet in the first round of the 1A bracket in the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament at 6 p.m. tonight on court one of the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
Iowa High School State Volleyball Tournament
At U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids
Tuesday, Nov. 6
Cedar Falls def. Waukee, 27-25, 25-14, 25-9
Linn-Mar def. Cedar Rapids Jefferson, 25-19, 21-25, 25-21, 25-20
Ankeny Centennial def. Dowling Catholic, 25-10, 25-19, 23-25, 25-12
West Des Moines Valley def. Ankeny, 25-12, 25-17, 25-18
Thursday, Nov. 8
Cedar Falls (45-0) vs. Linn-Mar (32-9), 10 a.m.
Ankeny Centennial (39-3) vs. West Des Moines Valley (41-3), 10 a.m.
Tuesday, Nov. 6
Sergeant Bluff-Luton def. West Delaware, 25-15, 20-25, 25-18, 25-21
Dubuque Wahlert def. Independence, 25-17, 27-29, 25-17, 16-25, 17-15
Cedar Rapids Xavier def. Pella, 25-18, 28-26, 25-13
Dallas Center-Grimes def. Bondurant-Farrar, 25-20, 25-8, 25-21
Thursday, Nov. 8
Sergeant Bluff-Luton (35-6) vs. Dubuque Wahlert (24-12), Noon
Cedar Rapids Xavier (28-8) vs. Dallas Center-Grimes (36-4), Noon
Wednesday, Nov. 7
Davenport Assumption (31-5) vs. Osage (29-6), 10 a.m.
Kuemper Catholic (42-1) vs. Clarion Goldfield-Dows (27-8), noon
Tipton (37-3) vs. New Hampton (36-5), 10 a.m.
MOC-Floyd Valley (28-7) vs. Mount Vernon (27-17), noon
Wednesday, Nov. 7
Dyersville Beckman (43-3) vs. Wilton (36-4), 2 p.m.
Unity Christian (30-6) vs. Dike-New Hartford (35-12), 4 p.m.
Western Christian (39-5) vs. Treynor (33-7), 2 p.m.
Sidney (38-2) vs. Tri-Center (31-7), 4 p.m.
Wednesday, Nov. 7
Janesville (43-5) vs. Gladbrook-Reinbeck (28-9), 6 p.m.
Starmont (29-6) vs. Tripoli (23-15), 8 p.m.
Gehlen Catholic (27-4) vs. East Mills (28-5), 6 p.m.
Holy Trinity Catholic (35-3) vs. Montezuma (29-9), 8 p.m.