Spartans secure league five-peat

TAMA – South Tama County volleyball coach Michelle Bradley spent 9 hours in the Oskaloosa gymnasium on Saturday, studying Grundy Center’s tendencies and doing everything she could to help her Trojans take down the titans of the NICL West.

But no Xs and Os on paper could make up for the intangibles the Spartans have come to possess after years and years of success at the net.

Class 2A No. 7-ranked Grundy Center dodged yet another stiff test from South Tama, toppling the Trojans to end the NICL West Division slate undefeated for the fifth season in a row with a 26-24, 25-10, 25-17 triumph. It marked the 33rd straight conference match victory and 91 sets in a row in league play.

“The streak’s the streak, but at the end of the night you’ve got to go get the match, and we did that,” said Grundy Center coach Darwin Sents. “When we took that first game you could tell that mentally it really wore on (South Tama), and I think we played better after that.”

The Spartans spoiled STC’s Senior Night and celebrated a fifth consecutive conference crown on the Trojans’ home floor, dodging a serious scare in the first set that nearly changed the course of the match.

South Tama trailed most of the opening set but made a late move, using a 4-1 surge to take a 24-22 advantage – the Trojans’ largest lead all night. But the Spartans (26-8, 7-0) soaked in some sage advice from their head coach during a timeout and savored each ensuing point.

“Play every point,” Spartan sophomore Katie Lindeman said, recalling Sents’ sentiment. “Don’t look to the end, win the next point.”

The Spartans did, and the following three as well. Lindeman got a kill off the block to break a 24-all tie and a swinging error for South Tama provided the final point of the first set.

“South Tama really came out to play, it was their Senior Night, they were very emotional and they came out to play,” said Sents. “They put everything they had into game one, and I love my kids for fighting through.”

Winning the first set eventually proved to be the turning point of the match, as South Tama (16-12, 6-1) lost all its energy with Grundy Center’s four-point swing at the end of the first set. The Trojans trailed 12-5 before STC coach Michelle Bradley called her first timeout, but her words didn’t have the desired effect.

The visiting Spartans pulled away convincingly, with Lindeman and Peyton Ralston leading the charge, for the decisive 25-10 second-set triumph.

“I told them, ‘You’ve got to keep that intensity,’ and if you don’t keep that, we’re out. We’re done,” Bradley said of the break between games one and two, “and that’s what happened.

“On paper we had them beat. I scouted them all day in Oskaloosa, I wrote down every little thing they did, but you’ve got to go out there and do it.”

South Tama’s primary attack came from the outside as Trisha Walz and Paige Van Dyk propelled the Trojans through that first game. A quick set to the outside with a stand-still approach from the hitter did its part to confuse Grundy Center’s blockers, but the Spartans survived the first set and adjusted accordingly.

“After we beat them in the first set they looked tired, mentally and physically,” Lindeman said of the Trojans. “They weren’t prepared to lose that first one.”

Searching for a comeback in the third set, South Tama couldn’t make the first pass to set up an offense that ended the night with a negative hitting percentage. STC finished with 22 kills and 26 attacking errors.

“We were ready to play our game after the first one,” said Lindeman, who led Grundy Center with 11 kills. “Usually that first one’s a warm-up for us. Just play, hit the ball. We weren’t hitting as much as we should have, we were tipping.”

The return of outside hitter Stephanie Faust proved impactful as the junior, who has battled an injury, played in her first conference match since Sept. 17. She had four kills and a block in the opening set and finished with seven kills on the night.

The Spartans forced the attack to the middle or the right side once they jumped out to an 11-3 lead in the third set. Noel Saak scored on a quick set in the middle, Kennedy Buss recorded one of her team-high three blocks, and Ralston racked up a kill from the right side.

Walz – one of eight seniors celebrating their final regular-season home game – scored three points out of four for STC with Grundy Center on cruise control, but it wasn’t enough to get the Trojans back into the match.

“I saw a couple tears after the match, but I told the girls not to hang their heads,” said Bradley. “The postseason is where it’s at.”

Walz ended with nine kills to pace South Tama, Van Dyk had six and Tori Appelgate added three. Sam Holtz was held to two kills in the middle, but she did lead the way with 15 digs. Walz added 10 digs and a solo block, while Madison Baack tallied 21 assists.

Behind Lindeman’s 11 kills and Faust’s seven, Alyssa Mathews and Buss both contributed four kills and Saak had three. Riley Sents tallied 26 digs, Piper Johanns had 15 and Brittany VanSickle added eight. Mathews and Ralston had 14 and nine assists, respectively, and Lindeman served 17-for-17 with one of the Spartans’ five aces.

The Trojans close out the regular season Oct. 24 at Benton, then turn around to host the Bobcats on Oct. 29 in the opening round of Class 3A regional play.

Grundy Center is off until the second round of 2A regionals on Oct. 29, hosting the winner of a first-round pairing between fellow NICL West foes BCLUW and South Hardin. The Spartans will be bidding for their fourth straight state tournament appearance.