CEDAR RAPIDS — Guided by a complete senior class, the veterans on Janesville’s volleyball team left one last indelible mark Friday night within high school careers filled with championships.
Class 1A’s small-school giants, Janesville stormed through the first two sets and rallied in the third to close out a fourth consecutive state title with a sweep of Fort Madison Holy Trinity, 25-16, 25-14, 25-22, inside the U.S. Cellular Center. The Wildcats join a list of just four other Iowa volleyball programs to complete a four-peat.
Outside hitter Bree Thompson, setter and hitter Alisa Bengen and libero Lily Liekweg played in all four of these championship matches. Senior defensive specialist Kennedy Rieken has seen court time over the past three, and all but two members of last year’s championship team returned, including senior starter Grace Hovenga.
“It’s an incredible accomplishment,” Janesville coach Shelly Sorensen said. “It was a great group of athletes in that senior group to lead this team. Everybody did their part to contribute to that win, and a lot of great athletes mixed with them over the last four years to accomplish something big.”
A longtime dual-sport coach who has led Janesville’s volleyball program over the past 28 years, Sorensen can remember far enough back to when this senior class wasn’t as successful. It didn’t last long.
“They lost early on, maybe in fifth or sixth grade and they didn’t like it,” Sorensen recalls. “They really set their goals to achieve as much as they could going through.
“I’ve been doing this for a long time and every group leaves great memories. This one was just a very special group in the sense that they were so driven, so competitive.”
Thompson, Iowa’s 2018 all-class kills leader, repeated as the all-tournament team captain. She recorded a match-high 19 kills that upped her season total to 606.
Behind Thompson’s first four kills, Janesville opened the match on a 7-2 run and led the first set by as many as 11 points.The Wildcats then progressively extended their lead to 11 points again in set two.
“They’ve all been super fun because of the people involved,” Thompson said, reflecting on the titles. “Getting to celebrate with my team was amazing.”
A Holy Trinity team (37-4) that has now been defeated by Janesville in the last four state tournaments, rallied in set three behind one of Class 1A’s top attackers in Emily Box, who had averaged 4.65 kills per set throughout the season. Trailing 21-18, Janesville regrouped and closed the match on a 7-1 run.
Bengen, a setter converted into an extra attacker within a two-setter system, delivered the final kill. She concluded her lengthy career as a teammate with her younger sister, Mackenzie, and was also coached by her dad, Todd, who serves as an assistant on Janesville’s staff.
“It was just really an awesome feeling,” Alisa Bengen said, addressing the final kill. “The ball went up to Gabby (Gergen) and I was calling for the ball because I was the only senior in the front row. I was really hoping she’d give it to me. She did, and right when I went up I was like, ‘Please let this hit the floor.’ It did and emotions everywhere. ... I couldn’t imagine a better way to go out.”
Bengen finished with a triple-double of 13 kills, 13 assists and 12 digs. Gergen led the way with 31 assists, and Julia Meister added seven kills on .500 hitting for a Janesville team that held a 50-20 kill advantage.
Janesville’s back row defense also never allowed Holy Trinity to get into much of a rhythm. Liekweg led the Wildcats with 28 of the team’s 88 digs, and Thompson dug up 15 attacks.
Box paced Holy Trinity with 10 kills, but needed 40 swings to reach that total. None of her teammates had more than three.
“It didn’t seem like there was a hole,” Box said, addressing the challenge Janesville’s defense presented. “Every single spot on the floor they were covering very well.”
In addition to finishing with another state title, this Janesville team showed it could compete with the elite in bigger classes. The Wildcats (46-5) defeated five qualifiers in this season’s Class 3A through 5A state fields.
“We’ve all just had a passion for it,” Bengen said. “Some of the girls have different favorite sports, but most of the senior class, our favorite sport is volleyball. We’ve had really, really good team chemistry.”