CEDAR RAPIDS — Cedar Falls volleyball coach Matt Johnson was speechless.
Talking to his team after a loss for the first time in 76 matches, Johnson knew there were no words that could alleviate the pain they were feeling following Friday’s Class 5A state championship setback to Ankeny Centennial.
No. 2 Centennial dictated play with precise passing, a balanced attack and imposing blocking to end top-ranked Cedar Falls’ quest for perfection, 25-18, 25-22, 25-23, under the bright lights of the U.S. Cellular Center’s championship court configuration.
For many on Cedar Falls’ roster, this marked their first varsity volleyball defeat. Seven seniors graduated from last year’s championship team and a new wave of talent seized their opportunity to shine.
Cedar Falls dropped just two sets through 46 wins before losing all three Friday and finishing the season 46-1. The program’s win streak ended at 75.
“They’re hurting,” Johnson said. “There’s nothing I can say that’s going to cure that in the moment, but I think hopefully when they look back and have some time to reflect on the season overall they’re going to have this moment, but they’re also going to have a lot of positive moments to go back on.”
Centennial (41-3) is now responsible for Cedar Falls’ last two state tournament losses. The Tigers had swept five state tournament opponents since losing in the 2016 title match to a Centennial program that has won four of the last five state championships in Class 5A.
“A big thing for us is being the hunter, not the hunted,” Centennial outside hitter Kenna Sauer said, after recording 13 kills and 12 digs to become the all-tournament team captain. “We were just going at them, going at them, going at them. If they’re getting three points in a row, we look at each other, smile and say, ‘No more.’ We just attack them and keep going. They had some big kills, but we’re just going to come right back with ours.”
Cedar Falls matched Centennial with 42 kills in this match, but was out-blocked 9-5, and had nine more attack errors while trying to work around a Jaguars front that included 6-foot-3 Megan Lively and 6-1 Wisconsin volleyball recruit Devyn Robinson.
Centennial also challenged Cedar Falls’ serve receive unit with eight aces, and often forced Tigers’ setter Emerson Green to chase her team’s initial pass off the net. Outside hitter Akacia Brown led Cedar Falls with 16 kills, but middle Alayna Yates only had 21 attempts to generate nine kills and Dara Hulstein was held to four from her middle position.
“We hadn’t really seen a team that was that big and that good at blocking,” Brown said. “We weren’t really used to it.”
Robinson added 12 kills on .409 hitting for the Jaguars, and Ari Winters finished with eight kills at a .261 clip as Cedar Falls struggled to extend rallies.
“I thought they did a pretty good job of kind of imposing their will,” Johnson said. “When they’re passing the way they were it’s a lot of work to deal with them.”
A Cedar Falls team accustomed to being the front-runner was unable to limit Centennial’s runs down the stretch in this match.
Centennial overcame a 16-14 deficit with an 11-2 run to take control of the first set.
The Jaguars pulled away in set two with a 9-2 run for a 20-12 lead before Cedar Falls rallied to cut its deficit to 23-22. Winters responded with a kill followed by a missed setter-to-hitter connection that placed the Tigers in a two-set hole.
In the third, Centennial flipped an 18-16 deficit into a 21-18 advantage. Sauer converted her team’s second match point opportunity with an emphatic kill on the first swing of the point.
Despite the setback, there’s plenty this Cedar Falls team has accomplished. Senior Emily Clapp received the runner-up trophy after the match and later managed to muster a smile for a photo alongside her five classmates who waited their turn to produce a season filled with wins until this final match.
Brown, Yates, Green and libero Kirsten Graves are leaders within a deep junior class and will return to a program that is likely to remain a championship contender next season.
“This has been one of the best years ever,” Brown said. “Even though we won last year, I wouldn’t trade this season for anything. I love our seniors and I love our team so much. There was no drama. We all got along the whole time and we played hard.”
Added Johnson, “They were tough. They knew how to win matches, and even if something wasn’t working they’d find a way to contribute. It’s a pretty high volleyball IQ group. They knew what plays to make, and at what time to make them.”
Class 5A all-tournament team
Ari Winters, Ankeny Centennial
Emerson Green, Cedar Falls
Megan Renner, Linn-Mar
Madi Kubik, West Des Moines Valley
Devyn Robinson, Ankeny Centennial
Akacia Brown, Cedar Falls
Kenna Sauer, Ankeny Centennial (Captain)