Spartans relishing underdog role against Western Christian

GRUNDY CENTER – Upon hearing the news that her Spartans would play Class 2A second-ranked Western Christian in the first round of the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament, junior libero Riley Sents was excited and ready for the challenge.

Sure, the Wolfpack come into the match having won 12 straight – all by way of sweeps – and have 13 wins against ranked teams this fall.

Sents though sees this as an opportunity for her Spartans to show they belong on the biggest stage against one of Iowa’s best teams.

“We love that. It motivates us and gives us a chance to show people what we can do,” said Sents, the North Iowa Cedar League West Division Player of the Year and 2A leader in digs with 769. “We are just not going to give up and throw in the towel. We believe we can do this.

“I was excited when I heard we were playing them. We have things to prove this year. It is going to be a good game and I think we can do it.”

It isn’t the most favorable matchup, but many of the Spartans, including coach Darwin Sents, have the right attitude.

To win a state championship, you have to beat everyone. It doesn’t matter what order the victories go in.

“It’s not a good draw or an easy draw by any means,” said Coach Sents. “But these girls can do whatever they put their mind to. There is no room for anything but the ‘A’ game. We’ll see how it turns out. You have to beat them sometime.”

The Spartans and Wolfpack are used to facing each other in Cedar Rapids. The Wolfpack have eliminated Grundy Center the last two times they have faced off in 2A state tournament competition.

The underdog Spartans hope to change things up this year with a win over a Western Christian team that will be making its 13th straight trip – and 31st overall – to the state tourney.

“I knew that they were going to be tough,” said sophomore setter Alyssa Mathews, who has a team-high 386 assists. “We have never beaten Western and they have taken away state from us a couple of times. We are going to have to play really hard to beat them.”

The last team to beat Western Christian (43-2) was 4A No. 1 Harlan back on Oct. 12. That also was the last time the Wolfpack dropped a set. Prior to that loss, they had rolled off 28 straight wins.

Among the teams that Western Christian has beaten this season include 5A No. 3 Ankeny Centennial, 5A No. 4 Urbandale and 5A No. 6 Johnston as well as 4A No. 1 Harlan, 3A No. 1 MOC-Floyd Valley (three times) and 3A No. 5 Nevada.

But none of that fazes these Spartans.

After all, not many felt like a Grundy Center squad with just one senior and so many key departures from last year’s 1A runner-up team would beat 2A No. 5 South Central Calhoun to clinch its fourth straight state tournament berth.

“It was a feeling of ‘Yeah, they are a really tough team,’ but we are confident in ourselves,” said junior setter Peyton Ralston, who has 334 assists and 247 digs this year. “It doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks. If someone is saying it’s already over, that’s kind of dumb. We don’t know who is going to win until we play the game.”

Grundy Center will take a seven-match win streak into Wednesday’s 2 p.m. match. The Spartans (29-8) have gotten better as the season has progressed. And they may be playing the best ball of the season.

They certainly played well against the Titans in the regional final last week. The Spartans dropped the first two games of the match but rallied to win.

It was that victory that has given the young Grundy Center roster even more confidence and belief in pulling what others would deem an upset.

“It’s awesome being the underdog. I really like it. No one expects us to win except for us,” said defensive specialist Piper Johanns, who has 291 digs on the year. “It’s amazing we made it this far because most people didn’t think we would get there. We came together as a team as the year went on and hopefully we can keep going.”

The Wolfpack lost just two seniors from last year’s 2A runner-up finish. One of those players was all-state hitter Brooke Wolterstorff.

This year’s Wolfpack roster features five players with at least 200 kills, four players with at least 40 aces and a junior setter that does just about anything that’s asked of her.

Ema Altena leads the hitters with 265 kills and 87 blocks, while 6-foot-5 Haley Moss has 249 kills and 85 blocks.

Jamie Gesink is fifth in 2A with 936 assists but she also has 197 digs, 68 kills and 54 aces on the year.

“We know that’s out there,” Coach Sents said in regards to the people who don’t give the Spartans any kind of chance. “Most people didn’t think we would beat South Central Calhoun either. We are the underdogs, but we did good the last time we were the underdogs.

“We had a few years where we were supposed to beat Western and didn’t so maybe it is our turn to beat them when we are not supposed to. The kids have a great attitude. They are looking at this as a chance to maybe get some payback.”

The 2A portion of the state tournament will kick off at noon Wednesday as No. 6 Eddyville-Blakesburg-Fremont (34-5) will face fourth-ranked Council Bluffs St. Albert (27-4) on court one and No. 7 Hinton (26-7) takes on third-ranked Sumner-Fredericksburg (37-3) on court two.

Top-ranked Dike-New Hartford (42-1) will face unranked Iowa City Regina (19-11) on court one at 2 p.m., while Western Christian faces the Spartans on court two at the same time.

“We all know how much we have worked,” said junior hitter Stephanie Faust, who comes into the state tournament with 196 kills. “You just have to dig down deep at this point of the year. They are supposed to win, but that doesn’t mean they will.”