Council Bluffs St. Albert made its first trip to the state volleyball tournament a year ago, and although the Saintes bowed out in the first round, that experience might have made a critical difference in its quarterfinal match against first-time qualifier West Branch.
The Saintes twice came back from big deficits to win sets including an 8-1 hole in the decisive fifth set to defeat the Bears, 27-25, 21-25, 25-20, 18-25, 15-13.
“We worked really hard the entire match and they just came out on top,” Bears senior setter Kelli Vaughan said. “I think we were both pretty even and competitive teams.”
“There’s a lot of hurt girls in there,” coach Josh Lukavsky said outside the team’s locker room. “They gave it everything they had.”
St. Albert (29-10) will play top-ranked Dike-New Hartford today in a semifinal. The Bears finished their historic season 36-5.
The Bears got their money’s worth with the two-hour match that started an hour and a half late, but the result was a painful reminder of how tough things are when you get to the final eight teams in a class.
West Branch led 18-12 in set three after having split the first two closely contested sets only to see St. Albert put together two runs of five and eight points to close out the set.
When St. Albert was on a roll, it just didn’t make mistakes. The kills were put down, the players got blocks or touches on all the Bears’ attacks and their serves went in. When West Branch surged, the Saintes made mistakes in all those areas and the Bears took advantage.
“We talk a lot about the only team that we feel is going to beat us is us,” St. Albert coach Angie Lantz said. “The two sets we lost, absolutely we beat ourselves. It came back down to us getting control of our emotions and just going one ball at a time.”
The Bears closed out set four after building a big lead and ran out to the 8-1 lead in set five and appeared ready to finish the job. They still led 12-5 after a Heather Poula ace, but then the Saintes turned back into a machine that put away kills and knocked down blocks. Trailing 13-9, St. Albert scored the final six points of the match on five kills and an ace. It was an extraordinary comeback.
“We put ourselves in a position to do it, and we just couldn’t finish it,” Lukavsky said.
“They definitely got a lot of momentum there at the end of the fifth game,” Vaughan said. “We kind of got down on ourselves and didn’t have an answer for it.”
“They rely on each other,” Lantz said. “They dug deep and they played as a team. They knew that they had to come back together. We were kind of riding the roller coaster a little bit and we started to separate from the team aspect and play like individuals.
“We started to play with a lot of confidence, and even though our backs were against the wall in that fifth set, you could feel that momentum shift because we played one ball at a time and we played with confidence.”
Throughout the game it was difficult for the Bears’ attack to find the floor because of the Saintes’ blocking and digging ability. St. Albert completely wiped out attempts at short, quick sets up front by sending them back in a hurry.
“They played some great defense against us and made us earn our points,” Lukavsky said. “That libero (Katie Kuck) was all over the place and getting touches on everything. I thought there were some balls that were going to hit the floor that someone else had dug up that she even got to.”
The Bears also had trouble blocking the outside hitters, particularly Kylie Ferguson, who hammered shots across the court. Ferguson led the Saintes with 21 kills.
But despite that, West Branch could just as easily have won this match. Poula led the Bears with 16 kills and had three solo blocks and five block assists. She had help from Madison Russell and Ashley Finnegan with 11 kills apiece. Russell, Finnegan and Trimble all contributed big points at key moments.
St. Albert almost gave the match away with its serving, missing on 13 of 106 offerings (.877), but it had 16 aces. West Branch served at a .954 clip but recorded eight aces.
The Bears’ Paige Donohoe had 23 digs and Russell added 14. Vaughan made 24 assists and Poula 20.
“I could not be more proud of a group of girls,” Vaughan said. “We’ve been playing together since we were little and all our hard work has finally paid off, even if this is where it ends.”
“What they’ve done the past few years is just unreal,” Lukavsky said. “And like I told the girls, I think they’re a group of girls these younger girls can really look up to. They’ve got great character; they’re hard workers, and they do what’s best for everyone.”