CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa --- As I-380 north of Cedar Rapids braces for an increase in traffic, four of the Cedar Valley's top volleyball teams went through a final dress rehearsal for the state tournament Monday afternoon in Cedar Falls.

Dike-New Hartford, Grundy Center and Waverly-Shell Rock each came to town to join Cedar Falls for one last scrimmage prior to departing for the new state tournament venue at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Class 3A and 4A schools are slated to begin matches Wednesday, followed by 1A and 2A teams on Thursday.

"Right now, around our area, we have a lot of really strong teams and it does help to be able to scrimmage against a lot of different teams," Dike-New Hartford coach Diane Harms said as she prepares to make her sixth state tournament appearance in nine years at the school. "You don't have to travel real far to prepare yourself for when you go down there."

Indeed, Northeast Iowa's volleyball programs have spent much of the fall trading haymakers in weekend tournaments. There will be a total of eight Cedar Valley-area schools competing in this year's state tournament.

Union Community, in Class 3A, and Janesville, in 1A, have followed up their inaugural state tournament appearances from a year ago by booking repeat trips to Cedar Rapids. Charles City (3A) is back at state for the first time since 2004.

Waverly-Shell Rock is making its third consecutive appearance in 3A after a six-year drought, and Grundy Center is a repeat qualifier in 2A after a six-year hiatus.

Tradition-rich programs in Tripoli (1A) and Dike-New Hartford (2A) are back for the fifth consecutive year. Tripoli is looking to win its 10th title in 13 tries, while Dike-New Hartford is seeking an eighth championship in 22 appearances.

Four years removed from its last trip to Cedar Rapids, Cedar Falls is back for its 16th state tournament.

"I don't think any of these coaches from this area will disagree, we've got some very good volleyball in this part of the state," Cedar Falls coach Matt Flaherty said. "There's a lot of very good club programs and coaches who invest their time and fans just being out there and supporting it."

Class 1A

Top-rated Tripoli is the odds-on favorite to capture a fourth consecutive title for the first time in school history. The Panthers are 37-3 with their losses coming to Grundy Center twice and Waverly-Shell Rock.

Tripoli standout middle hitter Megan Gilbert has led the Panthers in blocks and kills while starting on championship teams since her freshman season.

"It'd be awesome to start a new tradition of four in a row," Gilbert said. "We're going to have to work really hard to get there. It's not going to be just given to us."

Neighbor and Iowa Star Conference rival Janesville met Tripoli in last year's finals and is back at state despite losing its kills and digs leader, Olivia Fisher, to graduation. The Wildcats (29-10) do return sophomore setter Brittney Hanson, who made last year's all-tournament team, while freshman Kendyl Sorge leads her team's attack with an average of 3.47 kills per set.

Look for No. 2-rated LeMars Gehlan (32-1) to provide the toughest challenge to Tripoli's supremacy. The Jays' took the first two sets from Tripoli in last year's semifinals. Their only loss this season is to Class 3A's No. 5 Sioux City Heelan.

Class 2A

On paper, this class may offer the best collection of state tournament qualifiers. No. 1 Western Christian (47-1) has won eight of the last 10 titles. The Wolfpack is 38-0 against Iowa teams and owns wins over Class 4A's No. 2 Iowa City High and No. 3 Ankeny.

No. 2 Lake Mills is 44-0 and a finalist from a year ago, but hasn't played the top-tier competition that No. 3 Dike-New Hartford (41-3) and No. 4 Grundy Center (41-1) have gone through. Dike-New Hartford handed Grundy Center its lone loss and owns wins over Class 3A's No. 1 Dubuque Wahlert, No. 3 Waverly-Shell Rock and Ankeny. Grundy Center has defeated Tripoli twice with coach Darwin Sents earning his 400th career victory in the second meeting.

"There should be some real battles," said Sents, whose team reached the semifinals a year ago. "I don't see somebody sweeping all the way through.

"It's been a goal to get down there, and hopefully we're not just happy being there. I'm sure we're not going to be. We need to make some noise once we get there."

Both Grundy Center and Dike-New Hartford have won this season with balanced attacks and experienced setters. The Spartans are led by hitters Samantha Meyers, Meghan Krausman and Sarah Frish, in addition to junior all-state setter Heather Hook. Dike-New Hartford's attack has four players averaging better than two kills per set in Briana Weber, Kaity Brouwer, Lizzy Blough and Sara Koch. Senior setter Abbie Perez is a returning all-stater.

"We have a nice mix," Harms said of her team, which has set the school's single-season wins record this fall. "We're getting contributions from a lot of different players - sometimes as many as 12 depending on the particular night or situation. We're very fortunate that the girls have all bought into what we're asking them to do."

Class 3A

No. 1 Dubuque Wahlert (29-8) is looking to add to its all-class record of 17 team championships. Three Northeast Iowa teams hope to challenge the Golden Eagles.

No. 3 Waverly-Shell Rock (42-3) has won its last 32 matches and is led by a pair of NCAA Division I recruits in middle hitter Morgan Kuhrt (Iowa State) and setter Kinsey Caldwell (UNLV), who started on the Go-Hawks' 2009 state championship team.

Kuhrt is among the state leaders with an average of 4.27 kills per set, while Caldwell also hits in certain rotations and is second on the team with 2.45 kills in addition to her 8.21 assists per set. During its current win streak, W-SR has defeated Class 4A No. 1 Iowa City West.

Coach Brian Jesse's Union team returns all but one starter from a squad that fell to W-SR in last year's opening round. The Knights (32-7) have set a school record for wins and feature a reliable defense led by libero Tori Zempel (4.02 digs per set). Sara Jesse (10.53 assists) is back at setter, and outside hitter Sam Barz (3.55 kills) leads the team's attack.

"Last year we went down (to state) and were pretty tight the first game," Brian Jesse said. "After that, we really settled in and competed well against a good Waverly club. Our girls know if they play well, we can compete against anybody."

Rounding out the 3A field of Northeast Iowa qualifiers is Charles City. The Comets have qualified for state after falling in the regional finals each of the past three seasons. Junior Jessie Sindlinger (3.8 kills per set) leads the team's attack. She knows what it takes to deliver under pressure after winning Class 3A individual state golf titles the past two seasons.

Class 4A

Five Mississippi Valley Conference schools are among the eight teams in this year's Class 4A field. Cedar Falls' Flaherty just hopes the tournament won't be a repeat of the MVC tournament where his team lost three of its four matches.

The No. 11 Tigers (26-12) will open tournament play against No. 2 Iowa City High (38-3) in a rematch of an MVC Tournament contest the Little Hawks won in straight sets.

"I'm hoping this time around we come in with a little more focus," said Flaherty. "I think just the venue will do that. We had a really bad day at the conference tournament."

The match will end the careers of 10 Tiger seniors whom Flaherty says are already going out on top.

"Not all of them play, but they push each other," Flaherty said of his senior class. "To have that many girls stay out is very gratifying as a coach. For them to make the state tournament in their senior season is pretty special."

As a field, the 4A tournament may be the most wide open. No. 1 Iowa City West, for example, is 36-6 and lost four sets in its final four regular-season matches.

State tournament glance

Class 1A

MATCHES THURSDAY

No. 10 Woodward Granger (20-5) vs. No. 1 Tripoli (37-3), court one, noon

No. 5 Stanton (33-1) vs. No. 4 Boyden-Hull (27-3), court one, 1:30 p.m.

No. 9 East Union (32-4) vs. No. 2 LeMars Gehlen Catholic (32-1), court two, noon

No. 6 Janesville (25-10) vs. No. 3 Holy Trinity Catholic (46-2), court two, 1:30 p.m.

MATCHES FRIDAY

Court one winners, 6 p.m.

Court two winners, 7:30 p.m.

MATCH SATURDAY

Championship, 5 p.m.

Class 2A

MATCHES THURSDAY

No. 7 Sheldon (36-3) vs. No. 4 Grundy Center (37-1), court one, 6 p.m.

Kuemper Catholic (23-8) vs. No. 1 Western Christian (47-1), court one, 7:30 p.m.

Council Bluffs St. Albert (30-9) vs. No. 2 Lake Mills (44-0), court two, 6 p.m.

No. 11 West Liberty (27-10) vs. No. 3 Dike-New Hartford (41-3), court two, 7:30 p.m.

MATCHES FRIDAY

Court one winners, 6 p.m.

Court two winners, 7:30 p.m.

MATCH SATURDAY

Championship, 3 p.m.

Class 3A

MATCHES WEDNESDAY

No. 6 Charles City (34-7) vs. No. 5 Sioux City Heelan (44-11), court one, 6 p.m.

No. 10 Harlan (31-6) vs. No. 1 Dubuque Wahlert (29-8), court one, 7:30 p.m.

No. 7 Maquoketa (32-5) vs. No. 3 Waverly-Shell Rock (45-3), court two, 6 p.m.

No. 9 Union (32-7) vs. No. 2 Solon (32-1), court two, 7:30 p.m.

MATCHES FRIDAY

Court one winners, noon

Court two winners, 1:30 p.m.

MATCH SATURDAY

Championship, 1 p.m.

Class 4A

MATCHES WEDNESDAY

Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln (25-21) vs. No. 1 Iowa City West (36-6), court one, noon

No. 7 Cedar Rapids Kennedy (29-9) vs. No. 4 Dubuque Hempstead (25-8), court one, 1:30 p.m.

No. 11 Cedar Falls (26-12) vs. No. 2 Iowa City High (38-3), court two, noon

No. 8 Waukee (27-7) vs. No. 3 Ankeny (28-8), court two, 1:30 p.m.

MATCHES FRIDAY

Court one winners, noon

Court two winners, 1:30 p.m.

MATCH SATURDAY

Championship, 11 a.m.

 

 

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