LE MARS, Iowa | Kayla Mayer and her Gehlen Catholic volleyball teammates departed last season with bad feelings.
Under veteran coach Mike Meyer, the Jays had reached the Class 1A state tournament seven consecutive years, beginning in 2009. Last season’s 25-12 slate was about par in terms of the win total that took past state tournament teams to Cedar Rapids’ U.S. Cellular Center, but George-Little Rock stunned the squad in the regional semifinals.
Mayer and her teammates, including two from the 2015 state tournament squad, Katie Peters and Brooklyn Heissel, are making it their goal to return to U.S. Cellular.
“I think that has been in the back of our minds this year, to not have that same experience, that letdown and that disappointment,” said Mayer, a 5-foot-8 senior outside hitter currently with 105 kills.
“We don’t want to disappoint the team or disappoint each other. So going into this season, we decided we wanted to work harder in practice and work harder in our end of practice scrimmages so we can come into each game going after it and bringing our best.”
Depth and experience are keys for a third-ranked 24-6 squad that enter the Class 1A regional tournament with wins in 10 of the last 12 matches. The defeats came in the final week of regular season where 2A state-ranked Unity Christian (7) and Hinton (10) won five-game War Eagle Conference matches at the Jays’ court.
A good chunk of offense comes from a pair of middle blockers. Peters, a 6-foot junior, has 240 kills while 5-8 junior Katelyn Langel has 168. The two are also strong blockers as Peters has 48, eight more than Langel.
Peters, a third-team Class 1A all-state selection a year ago, tops the 200-kill margin for the third straight year. She combined for 40 kills in last week’s five-game losses, registering four back row kills in the setback to the Blackhawks.
“I think we have good hitters,” said Peters. “We’re a strong blocking team. Our passing is pretty good this year. We just come out ready to go because we know that’s what we want and that is what has to happen.”
During all but five matches this season, Gehlen has won the first set. Heissel, a 5-6 junior outside hitter with 70 kills, is part of a squad that averages a solid 10.36 kills per game while 5-9 senior right side Krista Lipp and 5-7 sophomore right side/setter Sydney Livermore have 95 and 71 kills, respectively.
Livermore (191 assists) shares setting duties in the Jays’ 6-2 offense with 5-6 junior Anna Britt (448 assists).
Meyer feels his team is in the right frame of mind for a return state tournament trip.
“This group is improving and we know we can get better,” said Meyer. “I think we want to get better. We’re not going to get down about two tough losses, especially since I think they can make us better.
“I think we are a little more hungrier. Ending the year in a disappointing fashion gave us a little bit of fuel to get us going stronger. We’re battling better. We’ve talked about how to compete and play hard and not let circumstances dictate how we play. We’re making progress in that area.”
Meyer said the 2016 team had its share of poor practices. This season, those have been fewer.
As he considers the Jays’ depth, he talks about how each of his 12 players have started at least two matches this season. Fewer players now appear, but the depth came in handy.
“We had a situation against Unity where we had someone struggle and I could immediately go to two different kids,” said Meyer. “Both played well and we played better as a team. It’s nice to have that option.”
Chloe Bunkers, a 5-7 sophomore libero, has a team-high 234 digs. Mayer and Peters have respective totals of 210 and 197 digs for a squad that starts the tournament trail this Monday, hosting the winner of the Akron-Westfield/Siouxland Christian match.
Now in his 12th year as Gehlen’s coach, Meyer knows it’s a long wait, but he feels there’s defensive things they can work on along with their cohesion between second and third contacts on offense. Passing and energetic play are his keys for a return state tournament trip.
Communication is the thing Peters feels will carry the squad in its one-match-at-a-time approach.
“It’s important to focus on the match you’re playing first,” she said. “You can’t be thinking about something that happened in the match before or something that could happen in the match ahead. You have to focus on the present.”