Drought busters Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball qualifies for state for first time in 30 years

T-R PHOTO BY THORN COMPTON The Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball team celebrates on the court at Boone High School after defeating Ar-We-Va in the Class 1A Region 3 finals on Tuesday to qualify for the state meet.

BOONE – It’s been 30 years since Gladbrook-Reinbeck head volleyball coach Paula Kelley, then Paula Petersen, celebrated the team’s first trip to the Iowa Girls’ High School State Volleyball Tournament.

On Tuesday night at Boone High School, Kelley got to celebrate the second-ever state qualification for the Rebels, though this time as a coach and not a player.

Gladbrook-Reinbeck battled closely with Ar-We-Va in the Class 1A Region 3 final, but when the dust settled it was the No. 11 Rebels who came out on top, defeating the Rockets in four sets, 25-15, 18-25, 25-19, 25-22, snap a 30-year drought without an appearance in the state tournament.

“Surreal,” Kelley said of the prevailing feeling after the win. “I just, a dream come true maybe? Having that opportunity to be able to do that is just a blessing and I am so thankful for it. I had that feeling and I wanted that for these kids to have that opportunity. It’s way better as a coach.”

Many of the members of that 1988 squad were in attendance as the G-R faithful packed in the house, including former coach Terri Luehring, who shared a tearful embrace with her protege after the victory.

Those weren’t the only tears shed after the win, however.

“I immediately started crying in a, ‘we’re going to state!’ kind of deal,” senior Meriah Wittgreve said. “I was totally hyped up.”

The Rebels (28-9) came out strong in the first set, dominating Ar-We-Va (17-11) to a 25-15 victory.

The Rockets returned that first punch with a body blow of their own, however, starting the second set on a 6-0 run and eventually tying things up at one-set all with a 25-18 victory.

“They were excited all day, way excited. You can’t be excited on a bus ride for an hour and a half, so getting them back up and being able to maintain that was a challenge,” Kelley said. “We were flat the second game, the entire game we were flat.”

It seemed the third set was going to Ar-We-Va as well, as G-R fell behind 9-4 seemingly had no answer for Emilee Danner, the Rockets’ highly-regarded hitter.

That was, however, until the Rebels went on a run. Once down 11-7, Gladbrook-Reinbeck won eight of the next 10 points on the way to finishing the third set on an 18-8 run.

“It was just a question of, ‘what can they dig from within to get there?'” Kelley said. “They pulled it from wherever they needed to pull it from within to start pushing and getting into that spot where we needed to start getting points and getting the momentum, and once we got the momentum it snowballed from there.”

What sparked that run, Wittgreve said, was actually an injury to sophomore libero Alyssa Morgan.

“Coming off of Alyssa getting hurt, we had a lot of momentum thinking, ‘you don’t hurt one of our own,'” Wittgreve said. “We had to go in there and hold our own, it was definitely a, ‘we have to do this for Alyssa right now, we have to hold it together no matter the circumstances.'”

In the fourth set the game was knotted up from the beginning to the end. After 13 ties and neither team leading by more than two points, the Rockets called a timeout with the score knotted at 22-all. The Rebels would win each of the next three points to take the set, and once the final point was scored by Haleigh Berendes the entire Gladbrook-Reinbeck sideline errupted.

“I was just like, ‘oh my gosh, we’re going to state!'” G-R sophomore Saari Kuehl said with a huge grin. “It’s crazy, it still hasn’t set in.”

Kuehl led the Rebels in kills with 20, while Berendes followed closely with 13 and Wittgreve finished with eight. Kuehl, the second-ranked hitter in 1A coming into the match, had a great duel with Danner, the No. 4 hitter in 1A.

Though Danner finished with a whopping 28 kills for Ar-We-Va, Kelley said Kuehl got her when it mattered most.

“We knew that was going to be a battle one-on-one across from each other on a couple of those. I thought Emily won on the net, except for that last one,” Kelley said, referring to one of the final points of the match. “That just kind of helped her confidence and Saari had to work for all her kills tonight.”

It was actually Wittgreve who had the defensive task of stopping Danner at the net. There was a huge turning point in the third set when the Rebels had tied the score up but Danner had a couple of chances to put the Rockets back on top. On back-to-back attack attempts, Wittgreve and fellow senior Justina Eggers sent Danner’s shot right back at her for a block, and the Rebels used that to keep the momentum rolling.

“We went into this whole thing just knowing she was going to be their big hitter, she was the one who was going to score the points for them,” Wittgreve said. “As a middle, that’s my job, running the net and blocking. I have to get to every ball, so I was just tracking her at the net and making sure I was on her at all times.”

Wittgreve finished with four total blocks, while Eggers and Madison Denny-Weber had two each.

Denny-Weber excelled in her setting throughout the match, finding Kuehl, Berendes and Wittgreve in good spots when G-R needed points most.

“Today was tough with the decision making with where to set and how to set, we’ve been kind of doing a lot of gameplanning before games and during games she’s made a lot of good decisions,” Kelley said of her senior setter. “Defensively she struggles a little bit, but today I thought she set better than she did against North Tama. Just making the hitters successful, putting the ball up there so our hitters can find the holes. She has grown a lot, these kids have really stepped up these last three or four weeks, taken that next step to where we needed to be with this program.”

Denny-Weber said her job is easy when you have as many options for attacking as she does.

“It’s the best thing in the word, it’s so hard to choose who to set to but you always have to go to the one who’s on fire non-stop,” she said.

Serving has been suspect at times for the Rebels this season, and while they had seven service errors it was a good service showing by girls like Rachael Scarf, Rachel Cooley, Berendes, Wittgreve and Kuehl that brought the team new life at times.

“That’s usually been our Achilles’ heel but our serving got us back into every single set, and that’s not been our strong point all year,” Kelley said. “The serving is what really got us back in today, I think.”

Berendes, Wittgreve and Cooley each had two aces, while Kuehl had one.

Scarf also had a big kill in the fourth set that turned the tides back towards the Rebels’ side, and she said girls like herself and Eggers – who also had a big kills on the night – can contribute when called upon.

“We really can, we know our role on the team and when we are supposed to step up we can,” she said.

Through the entirety of the seniors’ time at G-R, the football team was the one continuing through the playoffs while the volleyball team cheered them on. Denny-Weber said it’s nice to be flipped in her final year.

“I mean, girl power right?” Denny-Weber said with a smile.

As for what this season has meant to the girls and to this program, Kelley again was at a loss for words.

“Awesome, I don’t have any other words at this point,” she said. “It’s a dream coming back and being able to do that, it’s a once in a lifetime type of thing.”