Doing it with defense

GRUNDY CENTER – In a sport where the hitters and front-row players get most of the recognition, the Spartan volleyball team has relied plenty on defense and superb efforts from the back row.

Star libero Riley Sents and her supporting cast of setters Peyton Ralston and Alyssa Mathews as well as defensive specialists Piper Johanns and Brittany VanSickle have had their share of big moments as Class 2A No. 9 Grundy Center has advanced into the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament for the fourth consecutive season.

While the offense has helped secure wins, the Spartan defense has quietly guided the team to some big victories as well, including the come-from-behind, regional final victory against No. 5 South Central Calhoun.

“Our defense is a huge part of our team,” said Johanns, who is second behind Sents with 291 digs. “In the end though, we need everyone. We couldn’t win the point if the hitters didn’t score it for us.”

The biggest key to the win over the Titans last week in Webster City may have been the Spartans’ ability to keep points alive with key digs along the back row. Sents finished with 51 digs in the five-set win and has a 2A-high of 769 on the season.

She will need to have a few more digs today when the Spartans try to pull off the upset against second-ranked Western Christian (43-2).

“The hardest matches are the funnest matches to play,” said Sents, who will be playing on her third state tournament team. “I am going to play with my whole heart, dig deep and do whatever I can to help the team win.

“We have been doubted much more this year. But I think this team is more defensive-minded where in the past we have been more offensive-minded.”

The Wolfpack will obviously present plenty of challenges for the Grundy Center defense.

Western Christian is making its 13th straight appearance in the state tournament and has beaten the Spartans the last two times they have faced off at state. Both of those losses were in the semifinal rounds in 2010 and 2011.

Five hitters have collected at least 200 kills this season for Western Christian. The Wolfpack also have a 6-foot-5 hitter in Haley Moss and two hitters who stand 6-1. The Spartans’ tallest player stands 5-10.

That will put added pressure on the blocks at the net and the defenders along the back row.

“We’ll have to be on top of things defensively,” said Grundy Center coach Darwin Sents, who was voted North Iowa Cedar League Western Division Coach of the Year. “They will have to step their game up and make the plays they have made the last three games. Serve receive will be big. We’ll need to keep them out of system and stay in system ourselves.”

Trying to get the Wolfpack, whose kill efficiency is .355, out of system is something that the Spartans agree has to be a top priority.

“They hit a lot of balls hard. They hit to many different spots so we’ll need to be in the right spots and there to get the ups,” said sophomore setter Alyssa Mathews. “We’ll try to serve it into spots to put them out of system, too. That is key so they can’t get good swings on all the sets.”

Western Christian has won 12 straight matches coming into today and all 12 have been won in sweeps. The last time the Wolfpack lost a match was Oct. 12 and that came against 4A No. 1 Harlan. But, Western Christian came back to beat Harlan later in the day at the same tournament.

Forty-one of their 43 wins in 2013 have been by sweeps. And before the loss to Harlan, the Wolfpack had won 28 straight matches.

The Wolfpack mountain will be a tough climb for the underdog Spartans. But Grundy Center won’t back down. And it certainly isn’t ready to throw in the towel.

“The back row is going to have to carry the team, make great ups and we have to do what we can to not let the ball hit the floor,” said junior Brittany VanSickle.

Another way to slow down the Wolfpack’s attack is at the net with solid touches and blocks of opposing swings taken by Ema Altena, Haley Moss, Jade Schaap, Summer Jensen and Kaira Moss – the five Wolfpack hitters who have more than 200 kills this season.

“I need to be up every time,” said middle hitter Kennedy Buss, who leads the Spartans with 46 blocks. “If I am not up there trying to block it, Western will kill it every time.”

Coach Sents agrees. And he hopes that his stout, aggressive, blue-collar defense can play the game of their season against the taller Wolfpack.

“Western is going to hit the ball hard,” Coach Sents said. “We need to get some touches on the blocks. There are upsets in the first round and defense wins championships so we’ll find out if that’s true. It will be a team effort though. We’ll need to find some offense too.

“I think our defense can dig the ball. If we can keep the ball alive and extend points, I like our chances. It’s not going to be easy, but if we play well, I think we have a good shot at it.”

Grundy Center and Western Christian will go at it at 2 p.m. today at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids. They will play on court two alongside top-ranked Dike-New Hartford and Iowa City Regina, who play at 2 p.m. on Court 2.