GRUNDY CENTER - The Grundy Center volleyball team and fans have likely rushed to the state tournament brackets the past two seasons to find out when the Spartans would take on Western Christian and Dike-New Hartford.
When they scurried to check out the brackets this season, those two schools were nowhere to be found. Well, at least in a bracket that featured the top-ranked Spartans.
For the first time since 2002, Grundy Center will compete in the Class 1A State Volleyball Championships and featured in that bracket is four-time defending champion Tripoli along with traditional powers Holy Trinity Catholic, Janesville, LeMars Gehlen Catholic and Grandview Park Baptist.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
The Grundy Center volleyball team poses for photographs with its Class 1A state volleyball qualifier banner Oct. 31 at Nevada High School. Making the program’s third straight trip to state, which starts tonight, are front row: (from left) Peyton Ralston, Riley Sents, Stephanie Faust and Brittany VanSickle; back row: Hana Edgerton, Piper Johanns, Kayla Mathews, Katie Lindeman, Heather Hook, Riley Ackerman, Sam Meyers, Harper Wells, Noel Saak and Kennedy Buss.
"We need to play our game and play it well," Grundy Center coach Darwin Sents said.
Grundy Center reached the semifinals of the Class 2A tournament the past two seasons, running into a wall in Western Christian both times. The Spartans will be one of the favorites in Class 1A this week, along with Tripoli and Holy Trinity Catholic.
"We have been so close the past few years, but the kids feel like this is the year," Sents said.
Iowa High School State Volleyball Tournament
At Cedar Rapids Ice Arena
Stanton (34-2) vs. Janesville (31-8),
Le Mars Gehlen Catholic (21-10) vs. Tripoli (35-5), 6 p.m.
Grandview Park Baptist (29-6) vs. Grundy Center (33-6), 7:30 p.m.
Marquette Catholic (29-5) vs. Holy Trinity Catholic (43-4), 7:30 p.m.
Stanton or Janesville vs. Grandview Park Baptist or Grundy Center, 7 p.m.
Le Mars Gehlen Catholic or Tripoli vs. Marquette Catholic or Holy Trinity Catholic, 7 p.m.
Semifinal winners, 6 p.m.
The Spartans have been to state six times in Sents' 15 years at the helm. And in five of those seasons, Grundy Center has reached the semifinals. However, the long-time Spartan coach has never coached on championship Saturday.
"We want to get him to Saturday," said libero Riley Sents, who leads the state in digs with 669. "We are even more motivated this season. We were so close last season. It has made us even hungrier to win it all this year."
Tripoli has been the dominant force in Class 1A the past decade, winning eight state championships since 2000. The Panthers beat LeMars Gehlen Catholic and Janesville in straight sets the past two seasons. The 2011 tournament also featured Janesville, Holy Trinity Catholic and Stanton, while 2010 included LeMars Gehlen, Holy Trinity, Stanton and Grandview Park Baptist.
All of those teams will be trying to knock off Grundy Center (33-6) and Tripoli (35-5) in 2012.
"I am really competitive as are the rest of the girls," said senior setter Heather Hook, who has a team-high 869 assists this season. "We want this one. We want to go out with a bang."
But first things first for the top-seeded Spartans, who will begin play at 7:30 p.m. tonight against No. 14 Grandview Park Baptist.
The Defenders, who were 12-19 last season, have reached the state tournament five times since 2000 but have only gotten past the first round once and that came in 2002 when they defeated Tripoli in four games to claim the state championship. That was back before rally scoring when games only went to 15 points.
"They'll be the best team we have played so far in the 1A playoffs," Coach Sents said about the Defenders.
Grandview Park Baptist is led by juniors Maddie Thompson and Emily Wolfe. Thompson has a team-high 272 kills, 31 aces, 245 digs and 57 blocks, while Wolfe has 255 kills, 44 aces and 247 digs. The setter is junior McKaylla Bell, who has 816 assists, 66 aces and 195 digs.
"They go through three players and are very solid in the middle," Coach Sents said.
Grandview Park Baptist won two tough five-set matches to reach state. The Defenders beat Adair-Casey and No. 10 East Union to clinch another berth at state. A common opponent for the Spartans and Defenders this season was South Hardin. Grundy Center dominated the Eagles in three games, while South Hardin went 1-1 against the Defenders. Both meetings went three games.
"We have accomplished a lot this season, but we don't want to fall short again," said senior hitter Sam Meyers, who leads the team with 446 kills. "This is my last year. I want to finish it off with a title."
Holy Trinity will be the No. 2 seed in the tournament. The second-ranked Crusaders (43-4) will take on eighth-ranked and No. 7 seeded Marquette Catholic in Round 1 at 7:30 p.m. Thursday.
Holy Trinity advanced to state the past two seasons and lost to Wapsie Valley in the championship in 2006 and 2007. Both of those matches went five games. The Crusaders also lost to Tripoli in the 2005 semifinals.
Tripoli will take on sixth-seeded and No. 7 ranked LeMars Gehlen Catholic (21-10) in another first-round match. They will play at 6 p.m. Thursday.
The Jays lost to Tripoli in last year's title match and also advanced to state in 2004, 2009 and 2010.
The final first-round matchup is expected to be the most competitive as it features No. 5 Janesville and No. 6 Stanton. The winner of this matchup plays the Grundy Center-Grandview Park Baptist winner.
Janesville (31-8) is a veteran of the state tournament, having played there the past two seasons. The Wildcats reached the state semifinals last season and was victim to Tripoli in the 2010 finals, losing in straight sets.
Stanton (34-2) also advanced to the state tournament in each of the last two seasons, advancing to the semifinals in 2010.
"We don't know a lot about these teams because we don't play a lot of 1A schools during the regular season," Coach Sents said. "Tripoli is always good and very well-coached. And tradition is a valuable thing. Janesville was there last year and Holy Trinity has solid players."
Grundy Center defeated Tripoli 21-18, 21-17 in a tournament earlier this season but only played four Class 1A teams this fall. The other three opponents were in the regional tournament.
The Spartans breezed their way through regionals. No team during that run of three matches scored more than 17 points in a set.
Coach Sents has never won a state title, but Riley Sents, his daughter, is hoping to help deliver that championship this season during her sophomore campaign.
"It'd be amazing, and that has been our dream for a long time," Riley Sents said. "I want to help take this thing to the next level. And the fact that this would be his first title makes it even more special."
Coach Sents added that winning a state championship with his daughter would be special.
"It would be awesome, it would be special," Coach Sents proclaimed. "She has put in lots of work. It'd be a neat thing for sure. And it will be extremely special winning the first one with her.
The Class 1A semifinals will start at 7 p.m. Friday and the title match will begin Saturday at 6 p.m. Every match will be played in Cedar Rapids at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
"We will base our game on what we do well," Coach Sents said. "We'll adjust if we have to. If you play well down here, you should be in good shape."
Note: Information for 2003 was not available on the Iowa Girls High School Union website. State appearance information above dates back to 2000.