It made for some pretty simple math.
Score when Kaz Brown was on the bench, serve aggressively when she was at the net.
The Johnston volleyball team put those two ideas together and got their first state tournament berth in four years by turning back Brown and No. 8-ranked Cedar Falls in four games, winning 25-22, 17-25, 25-22, 25-21 in Tuesday's Class 5A Region 4 final at the Roundhouse.
T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE
Members of the Johnston volleyball team celebrate after scoring the final point to defeat No. 8-ranked Cedar Falls in four games in the Class 5A Region 4 final on Tuesday night at the Roundhouse. The unranked Dragons will be making their first trip to the state tournament since 2008 after topping the Tigers, 25-22, 17-25, 25-22, 25-21.
It was the same gymnasium the Tigers won in a year earlier, defeating Dowling Catholic to advance to state for the first time in four years. But an unranked Johnston squad solved Cedar Falls with a monstrous comeback from an early deficit to disrupt the Tigers in the opening set of Tuesday's match.
"I think (the first set) took a lot of wind, but we responded well," said Cedar Falls coach Matt Flaherty. "We dominated the whole second game, we just didn't carry that through in games three and four."
A seven-point surge by the Dragons (26-8) came when Brown - Cedar Falls' 6-foot-3 junior middle hitter - rotated out of the lineup after serving, and Johnston had erased a 19-14 deficit in one fell swoop.
State Volleyball Tournament
at Cedar Rapids Ice Arena
First Round Pairings
Wednesday, Nov. 7
Johnston (26-8) vs. Ankeny (29-6), 3 p.m.
Bettendorf (20-11) vs. Dubuque Hempstead (29-6), 3 p.m.
Urbandale (31-8) vs. Pleasant Valley (37-1), 4:30 p.m.
Dowling Catholic (33-10) vs. Iowa City High (29-8), 4:30 p.m.
"Obviously our goal was, we knew when (Brown) was out of the front that we really needed to push and try to score as many points as we could in those situations and really try to get them on their heels then," said Johnston head coach Rick Brooks. "But we were also able to score a few when she was in the front, and that was definitely a bonus and helped a little bit."
The Dragons, who trailed by as many as 12-5 during the first set, closed out the opener but could not keep Cedar Falls down. The Tigers (28-11) took advantage of Johnston's suddenly light serving and dominated the second game, turning to Brown for five kills and an emotional spark.
"I don't think we did enough when (Brown) was in the front row," said Flaherty. "We've got to build leads and we've got to be able to sustain them, especially with her up there in the front row."
But the flame flickered again in game three when Brown went to the bench her second time through the rotation, and Johnston caught fire.
A six-point surge gave the Dragons a 20-16 lead they managed to close out, and the same trend resurfaced in the fourth set.
So did Taylor Joens, Johnston's 6-foot junior outside hitter. After recording six kills in the opening set, her chances dwindled before Brooks demanded different of his setters in the fourth game.
"I talked to my setters a little bit about that because I think sometimes they were choosing other options and I was like, 'No, we need to go where it needs to go."
The all-Central Iowa Conference standout Joens notched eight of her match-high 19 kills in what would prove to be the final set, spiking the ball to the floor with nearly every lob that came her way.
The two teams were tied 16-all in the fourth when Brown rotated out, and a four-point Johnston rally driven by Joens' serving gave the Dragons the lead they needed. Essentially trading points the rest of the way, Johnston looked to Joens for one final kill to get the school back to state for the first time since three straight appearances (2006-08).
The Dragons can credit aggressive serving, though awfully inaccurate, for helping to take the Tigers out of their intended offense.
"We've got to be aggressive serving, and we've got to be aggressive offensivley, but the trouble with that as maybe you saw tonight is we tend to miss a few more serves when we're a little more aggressive," said Brooks. "It's that catch-22. If you serve soft they're going to give (Brown) the ball a lot and we would rather chance it with serves."
Johnston notched nine service aces but 17 errors, though they were happy to trade the misses for the ones that kept the Tigers out of system.
"(Serve-receive) has been one of our weaker areas, yes, and we don't see top-spin serving teams all year long," said Flaherty. "We did what we could do, it's just a matter of having the confidence and stepping in there.
"A lot of it did probably fall on our serve-receive. We just didn't take advantage of it and get the ball to our setter. I thought when we ran our middles, which was the gameplan, we were in control."
Brown finished with a team-leading 11 kills, five blocks and three ace serves, while Cedar Falls' all-time kills, digs and aces leader Miranda Dusenberry recorded 10 kills and 19 digs in her final match.
Backing Joens on Johnston's offense was Madeline Miller with nine kills and Kaari Devens with eight.
The Dragons advance to state as the No. 8 seed, the only unranked team in the 5A field. They will face top-ranked Ankeny (29-6) at 3 p.m. Nov. 7 in the state quarterfinals at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
The two suburban Des Moines schools did not face each other during the regular season.