Rebels run it back

No. 11 G-R nets third trip to state in last four years

The Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball team breaks in celebration after its Class 1A Region 3 finals victory over No. 6 Ankeny Christian Academy on Wednesday night at the Roundhouse. The 11th-ranked Rebels knocked off the Eagles 25-23, 25-21, 27-25. Photo by Ross Thede

The Rebels are running it back.

Back-to-back, in fact.

The 11th-ranked Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball team upset No. 6 Ankeny Christian Academy in a three-set sweep Wednesday night at the Roundhouse, downing the Eagles 25-23, 25-21, 27-25 in the Class 1A Region 3 finals to earn its third state tournament berth in the last four seasons.

They did it as the underdogs, they did it without Saari Kuehl, and the did it against a team that hadn’t lost since August.

“It’s huge for the program,” said G-R head coach Paula Kelley. “This is something that we’ve been building up for the last five years and being able to go back to state for the third time in four years and now back-to-back is huge. The kids have an expectation that we’re going to do well, we’re going to have that chance every year and I think this just solidifies the fact that we can do it. We lose some great players, new players step right in and fill in those shoes and we can still accomplish that big goal.”

The Rebels (29-13) return to Alliant Energy Powerhouse in Cedar Rapids Tuesday night as the No. 6 seed in the 1A bracket, where they will face No. 3 Springville (33-4) in the opening round for the second year in a row.

It’s a feat some thought impossible after the graduation of Kuehl, a first-team all-state outside hitter who is currently playing for Southwest Minnesota State University, an NCAA Division II program in Marshall, Minn. Her absence, however, allowed the emergence of Ava Wyatt, G-R’s junior hitter who slid to the right side last fall to give the Rebels an added blocking presence on the outside.

Wyatt’s 14 kills led all players on Wednesday night, when Gladbrook-Reinbeck handed Ankeny Christian Academy (33-4) its first match loss since the Eagles’ season-opening visit to the Meskwaki Tournament on Aug. 28.

ACA had won 31 matches straight since that opening date, dropping only five sets until the Rebels took a rough-and-tumble opener in the regional final. Gladbrook-Reinbeck rattled off three-straight points — the only such occurrence in the first set — to take a 23-22 lead.

After the Eagles tied it with a kill from freshman Anna Weathers, G-R went back to the well. Wyatt went cross-court for her seventh kill of the opening set, and senior middle hitter Katie Clark ended it with a well-placed tip for the final point.

“I feel like our hitters are more balanced,” said Clark, one of two seniors on the roster. “We had a lot more big hitters coming from different angles and the fact that we had so much energy, we kind of beat them that way too. When they got down we really used that against them.”

Ankeny Christian Academy never got down too far, though, and the Rebels had to earn every point they got.

And when they had to, they did.

G-R’s only four-point run of the night helped the Rebels attain a 21-14 lead during the second set, driven by the serving of junior libero Breehan Dubberke. Clark registered consecutive kills, Dubberke chalked up an ace and Wyatt tipped the ball to the floor.

ACA took a timeout to collect itself, and the Eagles did exactly that. Then they collected five of the next six points to get within 22-20 before kills by Megan Cooley, Lily Dripps and Mahayla Olson finished them off.

Ankeny Christian used its only four-point push to take a 10-6 lead in the third set, but the Rebels used a timeout of their own to settle the nerves.

“You could feel that momentum starting to shift a little bit,” said Kelley. “We started to feel like we were on our heels, we kind of started to panic and needed to calm them down, get back into what we do best and stay under control and stay focused.”

The Rebels retaliated with eight of the next 10 points to pull in front, 14-12, but the score was eventually knotted up at 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19 and 20. Backed into a corner by a sudden three-point rally by Gladbrook-Reinbeck, the Eagles persevered and put together their own trifecta to go in front 23-22.

It was their latest lead in a set, but it was spoiled on the next point by a service error. The Rebels, with decidedly more experience in the big moments than their counterparts, fought through to match point.

Waiting for G-R junior setter Emma McClintock to distribute the ball to one of her potent options, the Eagles were unable to dig up the ball when McClintock called her own number at the perfect moment. McClintock subtly dumped the ball over the net for the final point of the match, sending the Rebels into a frenzied celebration on George Funk Court.

“Once we hit the first round (of regionals) we said we’re doing this, we’re going to prove ourselves and we did,” said Cooley, a junior middle hitter. “We just wanted it. We’re not going to give up now, we’ve come this far.”

Gladbrook-Reinbeck entered the regional tournament with more match losses than Ankeny Christian Academy had set losses (13-12), but the Rebels’ bumpy ride through the competition-rich North Iowa Cedar League and everyday life in the uber-talented Cedar Valley had them ready for the challenge.

The Eagles lost to Roland-Story, Denver and North Tama — three ranked teams — during that season-opening tournament in Tama County, but couldn’t respond when adversity struck for the first time in a long time.

“I think that we just really wanted it,” said Olson, a senior who has been on all three G-R state teams in the last four years. “We wanted to prove ourselves and we had a taste of [state] last year, especially going all the way to the championship match and we just wanted to get back there.”

The Rebels’ varied attack did its part. Wyatt led with 14 kills, Clark finished with seven, Cooley and McClintock had five apiece, Olson had four and Dripps one. McClintock totaled 30 assists.

Cooley led the G-R defense with 11 digs and four blocks, while McClintock made nine digs and Clark had seven. Dubberke served a sterling 16-for-16 with one ace while Cooley was 16-for-17 with two aces.

“It’s really neat because it’s a different dynamic (than past seasons), it’s a different team every single year so it’s really cool just to see how we’re morphing and figuring things out for ourselves,” said Olson. “I think we’re clicking a lot more which I guess is better now than ever. I think we’re really playing our game that our coaches believed we could play throughout the entire season.”