WEBSTER CITY - Grundy Center's volleyball team had been to three straight state tournaments, reached last year's Class 1A final and knew what it was like to play in big games.
Yet, coming into its 2A Region 5 championship match Wednesday, the ninth-ranked Spartans were the underdogs against No. 5 South Central Calhoun.
The Titans had won nine straight matches and hadn't dropped a set since losing to 3A No. 7 East Sac County in five games on Oct. 10.
T-R PHOTO BY TROY HYDE
Grundy Center junior Riley Sents (8) jumps into the arms of senior Kennedy Buss after the ninth-ranked Spartans pulled the upset over No. 5 South Central Calhoun in five games in Webster City on Wednesday. Sents had 52 digs, while Buss finished with five kills, helping the Spartans advance to their fourth straight state tournament.
The Titans were well on their way to a 10th straight win after taking the first two games, but the Spartans dug down deep, got a gutsy effort from junior libero Riley Sents and rallied for the 21-25, 20-25, 25-15, 25-23, 15-10 victory, stunning a loud and raucous South Central Calhoun crowd in the process.
"We just talked about how it takes three games to win the match," Grundy Center coach Darwin Sents said. "We still had life. They did not get to three yet. The best thing was that this group believed they could come back. It wasn't just lip work."
Riley Sents was spectacular on the back row all night long. The junior libero finished with 52 digs and provided an emotional lift to her teammates, finding a way to will the Spartans to the come-from-behind victory.
State Volleyball Tournament
At U.S. Cellular Center, Cedar Rapids
Tuesday, Nov. 12
10 a.m. - Dowling Catholic (30-8) vs. Ankeny (37-4); Johnston (32-4) vs. Centennial (32-8)
Noon - Pleasant Valley (28-6) vs. Urbandale (34-5); Dubuque Hempstead (34-5) vs. Bettendorf (34-2)
2 p.m. - Charles City (39-6) vs. Waverly-Shell Rock (46-6); Davenport Assumption (31-6) vs. West Delaware (36-5)
4 p.m. - LeMars (24-12) vs. Harlan (34-4); Indianola (29-10) vs. Solon (31-2)
6 p.m. - Independence (35-8) vs. MOC-Floyd Valley (32-6); Mount Vernon (25-10) vs. Sheldon (34-4)
Wednesday, Nov. 13
10 a.m. - Nevada (32-11) vs. Union-LaPorte City (27-7); Red Oak (27-6) vs. Carroll Kuemper Catholic (26-4)
Noon - Eddyville-Blakesburg (34-5) vs. Council Bluffs St. Albert (27-4); Hinton (26-7) vs. Sumner-Fredericksburg (37-3)
2 p.m. - Iowa City Regina (19-11) vs. Dike-New Hartford (42-1); Grundy Center (29-8) vs. Western Christian (43-2)
4 p.m. - Stanton (37-5) vs. Le Mars Gehlen Catholic (23-11); Springville (30-10) vs. Janesville (36-4)
6 p.m. - Guthrie Center (23-6) vs. Holy Trinity Catholic (45-4); Tripoli (24-14) vs. Central Lyon (27-6)
"I was so amped for this match," said Riley Sents, who also was 13-for-13 in serves. "We knew this match was going to be tough. Our team is built on heart and we knew we could do this. The will of this team is great. We knew we could come back and win."
The victory pushes the Spartans into their fourth straight state tournament. Grundy Center lost to Tripoli in four games in last year's 1A championship match. The two previous appearances ended in 2A semifinal losses to Western Christian.
The ninth-ranked Spartans (29-8) will get a chance for redemption at 2 p.m. Wednesday when they face off against the second-ranked Wolfpack. Western Christian (43-2) will be making its 31st trip to the state tournament and 2013 will be the 13th consecutive appearance.
"I thought tonight was awesome. Now is the time to be playing your best and I think we are," Coach Sents said. "I have no idea who the state will match us up against, but we are playing our best ball right now."
The Spartans, who have now won seven straight matches, did not play their best in the first two sets against the Titans, whose five losses this year were all to ranked foes. South Central Calhoun (38-5) used an energized student section to grab an early advantage.
The opener was all knotted at 17 when the Titans made the deciding run. They scored three in a row to go up 22-18 and then, after Grundy Center closed to within two on a Piper Johanns ace, scored three of the final four points off kills from Tyffaney Toms, Haley Birks and Maggie Anderson to lock up an early advantage.
With the game tied at 13-all in the second game, the Titans used another late run to lengthen their lead. Four straight points made it 17-13 and then three more kills from Toms made it 23-16. A Spartan error gave the Titans game point and Hannah Corey finished off the win with a big blast.
The 2-0 deficit didn't faze the Spartans though.
"We just talked about how we worked hard throughout the year, and it would have been stupid to just let it go that way," said Peyton Ralston, who had 19 assists, 15 digs and three aces in the win. "We had to get back in it some way."
That some way was with defense and the arm of Stephanie Faust.
Grundy Center tightened up its blocks at the net and the back-row, led by Riley Sents, gave an extra effort to not let opposing attacks hit the floor.
Johanns finished with 20 digs and Ralston's 15 also assisted in the 52 from the Spartan libero. And their efforts to keep points alive eventually wore down a frustrated South Central Calhoun front row that featured four hitters with 100 or more kills.
"She refuses to lose. She spreads that into the team, too," Coach Sents said of his daughter Riley. "When she gets to those balls and keeps points alive, all of a sudden Piper is making a great play, Stephanie is hitting the ball hard or Noel is up taking a hard swing. She wills the others not to lose."
Faust also got her game together in the final three games after being what Coach Sents called "cautious" in the first two sets. The junior outside hitter collected a team-high 20 kills and three blocks in the victory. She also appears to be all the way back from a season filled with injuries.
"We worked our butts off getting back into the match," Faust said. "I think I played the best match I have ever played tonight. And our team played lights out in those final three games."
A dominant effort in game three gave the Spartans the momentum they needed to keep their season alive. They also pulled out a tight game four that saw South Central Calhoun rally from a 14-7 deficit.
The Titans got all the way back to 21-20 and then tied it at 23-all before Katie Lindeman kill and a Titan error evened the match at two games apiece.
"We just needed to grab the momentum," said Lindeman, who finished with 11 kills. "Once we won game three, we just kind of rode out the momentum the rest of the way."
Grundy Center jumped out to another lead in the final set. The Spartans led 9-3 before South Central Calhoun closed to 12-10. The final three points of the frame came on kills from Alyssa Mathews and Saak and a hit into the net from the Titans.
"Our experiences were able to help us through this one tonight," said Lindeman. "We had nothing to lose in those final three games. But we didn't want our season to end here. We just played our hearts out."
Lindeman also was 19-of-20 in serves with two aces, while Johanns was 20-of-22 with three aces and Ralston was 22-of-24 with three aces. Mathews had a team-high 20 assists, while Saak added two blocks and was 15-of-16 in serves. The Spartans ended up with eight aces on the night.
South Central Calhoun's four losses coming into Wednesday were against 2A No. 8 Ridge View, 3A No. 3 Carroll Kuemper Catholic and 3A No. 7 East Sac County. The Titans recorded 36 of their 38 wins on the season by way of sweeps. Their season included winning streaks of 10 and 15 games. The Spartans were trying to win seven straight for the third time this season. They had a pair of six-match win streaks halted in the seventh contest earlier this season. Western Christian lost to top-ranked Dike-New Hartford in five games in the 2A championship last year and lost in three sets in 2011. The Wolfpack claimed the 2A crown in 2004, 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010. ... Riley Sents came into the match with a 2A-high 717 digs. Lindeman now has a team-high 238 kills on the season.