Jaguars punch state ticket

Jaali Winters had been to the state volleyball tournament each of her first two years of high school.

She seemed determined to get back there again, no matter what color her uniform was.

Dressed in black from head to toe, Winters notched a match-high 22 kills in leading first-year program Ankeny Centennial past No. 7 Cedar Falls, 25-22, 22-25, 25-18, 25-19, in Tuesday’s Class 5A Region 5 final inside the Roundhouse.

Winters and the third-ranked Jaguars (32-8) will represent their new high school at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids next week when they face off with one of the other four Central Iowa Conference schools to advance – Johnston. The No. 6-ranked Dragons (32-4) swept West Des Moines Valley to register a second consecutive state tournament berth.

Centennial’s namesake, Ankeny High, is ranked No. 1 and has the top seed for the 5A bracket after dispatching Sioux City East. It’s the Hawks’ 12th straight trip to state, even after the local volleyball talent was divided by a second high school.

“Ankeny’s used to winning whether it’s Ankeny or Ankeny Centennial,” said Jaguars coach Jessica Rinehart. “These girls come from a winning program and a winning mentality. For some of them, I don’t even think they left the option that they might not get back to the state tournament.

“That mindset in and of itself definitely helps in these types of matches.”

So does having a hitter like Winters and a solid complement around her. Winters, a 6-foot-2 junior outside hitter, entered the match as 5A’s second-leading hitter and had the occasion to square off with the best blocker in the state, Cedar Falls senior Kaz Brown.

A 6-foot-3 middle blocker and Kentucky recruit, Brown added to her state-best total with eight blocks against

Centennial on Tuesday, but a lack of accuracy in the passing game prevented the Tigers (31-9) from duplicating the state tournament berth they earned in the same building two years ago.

This was actually the third straight regional final Cedar Falls played under the Roundhouse roof, including last year’s loss to Johnston.

“I don’t know if it gets in the girls’ heads or not,” said Tigers coach Matt Flaherty. “We’ve won here before and we’ve lost here before. It’d be nice to be close (to home) like a lot of the other teams are and play somebody who’s close, but you’ve got to win. You’ve got to play the game, and if we would have played it tonight, again, I think we could have pulled it off.”

It would have demanded that Cedar Falls’ defense did more against Winters’ supporting cast. Winters had seven of her 22 kills in the first set alone, and none after her middle attack found the floor to give Centennial a 7-4 lead in the fourth set. None of the Jaguars’ last 18 points in the final set to clinch a state berth came from one of two former Ankeny Hawks with state tournament experience.

“Actually I think that was key to our victory,” said Rinehart. “We’ve stressed all season that, yes, we have Jaa(li), but we need other people to contribute and they did that tonight and that made the whole difference for our team.”

Right-side hitter Olivia Coe finished with nine kills and middle hitter Gabby Helmbrecht added seven, while Kaity Vinzant tallied five kills. Junior setter McKenna Pierson, who was on last year’s Ankeny roster at state, added four kills, none greater than the dink that caught Cedar Falls off-guard to end the third set.

After Centennial won the opener 25-22 and the Tigers took the second set by the same score, it was a 6-0 run by the Jaguars that broke a 12-all tie in the third game. After Winters put away an over-pass by Cedar Falls for a 24-18 lead, Pierson finished a lengthy point by dumping the set across the net.

Centennial couldn’t pull away in the fourth set again until the end, when the Tigers’ sixth service error of the night made it 22-19 Jags. A misplayed pass from Cedar Falls, an Anna Svoboda ace and a Vinzant kill ended the set and the match.

“We knew it was going to be a battle, we knew it wasn’t going to be easy, we knew it would go back and forth,” said Rinehart. “We knew Kaz was going to be a big impact player, so it was what I expected it to be.

“We knew that (Brown) would get points and she’s a big block. We had a couple rotations we knew we had to plow out some points, and our servers did a fantastic job of keeping them out of system and not being able to feed Kaz all night, which was our plan.”

Brown finished with a team-leading 11 kills on just 22 attempts – 29 fewer swings than Winters. But seven of Winters’ 22 kills came from the back row, and Brown doesn’t play the back row after serving.

Cedar Falls simply failed to capitalize on their primary attacker when she was at the front line.

“We didn’t pass the ball,” said Flaherty. “We just weren’t communicating as much either, but the girls kind of got down on themselves. When we couldn’t get a pass up to the 10-foot line, our setter was running all over the court all night long.

“We took Kaz completely out of the game by not passing the ball.”

Andrea Leisinger added eight kills for the Tigers, Alicia Harring had seven and Emma Gerdes six. Lauryn Kramer, the libero, led with 27 digs, while Emily Henrickson finished with 33 assists. Gerdes served 20-for-20 with three of Cedar Falls’ five aces.

Centennial charted 10 aces on the night, led by Pierson’s four.

“They’re like us, they serve the ball and they’re accurate, they’re not aggressive,” Flaherty said, “and we knew that coming in. We just had to move our feet and we had to pass the ball … and we let their servers eat us up tonight.”

Ankeny Centennial and Johnston will square off for the first time this season when they meet on Nov. 12 at 10 a.m. in the Class 5A state quarterfinals. The winner will face either No. 2 Bettendorf – the defending champions – or No. 8 Dubuque Hempstead in the semifinals.