Cougars’ run cut just short of state
AMES – AGWSR’s rugged regular season schedule took a toll on its record.
But it also made the battle-tested Cougars’ postseason run a possibility.
Five days removed from a five-game semifinal upset over No. 8 ranked Grandview Park Baptist, a nine-win AGWSR squad looked just as capable of repeating the feat – and earning the school’s first state berth in five years – against previously rated Guthrie Center Wednesday.
Looking every bit the equal of a 22-win Tiger team, the battle-tested Cougars put Guthrie Center on its heels in each of the first two games, but couldn’t close out either. A third set victory kept things going, before the Tigers took over in the fourth for a 25-20, 26-24, 19-25, 25-15 Class 1A Region 4 final victory.
Guthrie Center (23-6) earned the No. 8 seed for its first state tournament appearance and will face top-seeded and No. 1 ranked Holy Trinity Catholic (45-4) Wednesday in a quarterfinal match at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
The Cougars (9-24) were in position early to make a move toward the program’s first state trek since 2008, though coach Shelby Abbas said her team wouldn’t have reached the regional final without taking on a tough slate of opponents.
“Playing ranked 1A, 2A and 3A teams really helped us to get to this point,” said Abbas. “We told the girls all year long that even though at the time it’s disappointing to lose those games, it prepares you for where you are right now.”
Kacie Schrack powered the Tigers up front with 17 kills, including six in the first set to help the visitors overcome a 16-13 deficit. The senior hitter contributed four of those in the last five points as Guthrie Center took seven straight to rally from 20-18 to steal game one.
The Cougars put themselves in prime position again in game two.
Freshman Alana Groninga followed Alexa Johnson’s smash with a tip over the net before a double hit by the Tigers gave AGWSR a 15-10 cushion. The visitors again used a timeout to turn the momentum and rattled off six straight. Mallory Osen’s winner opened a 22-18 lead for the Tigers before back-to-back kills from Taylor Steinfeldt and Olivia Ingledue knotted the score at 23. Schrack delivered again with smash and Sydney Danker’s ace put the Cougars’ season on the brink.
Abbas felt nerves may have played a factor for her team in the opening two sets, while senior Kim Ellingson saw a change in the squad’s mindset once the Tigers started their rallies.
“Attitude – we got down and then it just snowballed from there,” said Ellingson, who said a backs-to-the-wall approach helped the team come out firing in game three.
“That was our realization that we didn’t want the season to end.”
Never trailing in the third, the Cougars claimed a 19-9 cushion on a smash by Alexa Johnson coupled with two Guthrie Center miscues. Consecutive aces by Claire Thompson reeled the Tigers within 23-19, before Ellingson and Groninga closed it out with a pair of kills.
The third game effort matched the Cougars postseason mentality of playing free and loose as an underdog.
“We didn’t really look at our record so much,” said Fryslie, whose team lost 9 of its last 10 entering the postseason. “We noticed that we didn’t have that good of a record but it just gave us that mentality that we had nothing to lose.”
Neither team held an edge 10 points into the fourth, though the Tigers rattled off six straight to force a pair of Cougar timeouts. AGWSR responded from the second and closed within 12-10 on Groninga’s attack, but Guthrie Center didn’t allow its opponent any closer. Schrack sparked a 6-2 flurry with two kills and a block.
Madison Fryslie’s winner represented the Cougars’ last gasp at 18-15 before the Tigers took the final seven points capped by two Schrack smashes and an AGWSR error.
Johnson led AGWSR with nine kills, Groninga had eight and Fryslie seven. Ellingson served 22-of-22 and Groninga was 15-15 with an ace as the Cougars finished 79-of-83 on serve with four aces. Danielle Henning had a team-high 16 assists, while Ellingson added 11 and Olivia Ingledue came up with 32 digs.
Kara Boyer said “cleaning up errors” and “remembering to focus on passing” were the main areas she addressed in her timeouts during the first two games to help the Tigers’ turnaround.
“Once we could pass and set and hit we could get through their blocks and score and get some points off those kills,” said Boyer. “When we struggled to pass or when all we were doing was playing defense, then we struggled to get our offense going. Once we were able to do that, we were able to get through and get the lead.”
AGWSR battled a battalion of ranked foes throughout the year including both Grundy Center and Tripoli twice, along with West Branch, Hudson and Janesville among others. It was hard for opponents – including Guthrie Center – to get a real grasp on the Cougars capabilities.
“It was difficult to get any kind of read on them,” said Boyer. “I knew that their record didn’t look that great, but I also knew they played in a conference (North Iowa Cedar League West) that was tough. Sometimes you have to take that into account.”
AGWSR took on the bumps in stride, knowing they could turn some heads in the postseason.
“No one expected us to make it this far,” said Ellingson.
Ashley Sicard was in a walking boot and didn’t play in the postseason after bruising a bone in her left foot. Boyer said the junior’s absence played an impact, but Groninga filled in well in an expanded role.
“The girls were used to how (Ashley) played, she’s a really hard hitter for us,” said Boyer. “It affected us a lot but Alana did a great job of stepping into that role.”
Danker entered as the Class A leader in digs per set (6.73), ranking third in the state overall. The Tigers tied the school record for single-season victories last week with their 22nd win, matching the total by the 1981 and 1983 squads. After a 5-5 start, Guthrie Center has won 18 of its last 19 matches, including 12 straight.
AGWSR’s last state tournament appearance ended with a runner-up finish in the 2008 state championship to Tripoli, which is the five-time defending champion. The Cougars were led by all-tournament captain Macy Ubben and Cassidy Ringena.
The Cougars advanced to the final with a five-set semifinal victory (26-24, 23-25, 25-20, 15-25, 16-14) over No. 8 Grandview Park Baptist, a 2012 state qualifier, on Friday. Guthrie Center bounced No. 15 Martensdale St. Mary’s from the postseason with a 3-1 semifinal triumph (25-21, 18-25, 25-23, 25-19).
The Cougars graduate eight seniors from their squad including Danielle Henning, Annie Wilson, Taylor Steinfeldt, Brooke Harrenstein, Fryslie, Ingledue, Ellingson and Johnson.