CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s volleyball team certainly turned heads at this week’s Class 4A state tournament.
From the beginning, Coach Renee Winkel’s Warriors proved they belonged on the championship stage Friday afternoon at the U.S. Cellular Center.
However, the biggest sparks on the floor belonged to 5-9 Dubuque Wahlert sophomore outside hitter Aliyah Carter, who single-handedly overpowered Sergeant Bluff-Luton in the state championship match.
Carter, who was named the captain of the Class 4A all-tournament team, produced a whopping 34 kills for a program that stretched its state-record title total to 19 following a 23-25, 25-7, 25-16, 19-25, 15-8 triumph.
The Warriors, playing in their first-ever state tournament championship match, didn't go away quietly.
Kenzie Foley, one of seven underclassmen who helped the squad win both the Missouri River Activities Conference regular-season and tournament championships, didn’t take long to establish herself in the 4A title match with a back-row kill and twice responded with kills when passed to by veteran setter Lexi Sneller.
Foley had five kills of her 13 kills in Game 1, a set where defending 4A champion Dubuque Wahlert committed four errors, either on serves or attacks. As action progressed to Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s second straight five-game match of the tournament, they became unexpectedly balanced paced by a different leader, Elle Sneller (one of their squad’s three 6-footers), who also had 13 kills.
Kylee Christensen and Madison Harms provided 11 and seven kills, respectively, while representing the No. 4-ranked Warriors on the all-tournament squad. Winning the first game set the tone for Coach Renee Winkel’s squad, which finished the season with a 42-4 record.
“That’s been our goal all season to win every game and show the state that we’re kind of worthy of being up there even with the well-known schools, the ranked schools and the big names,” said Winkel, who has a 106-31 record in her three seasons as head coach.
“We came out of the gate really well, which was a goal. When teamwork is flowing and everything is clicking, we’re unstoppable.”
Carter smashed nine Game 2 kills and had 14 after two games. She entered the state tournament averaging 4.96 kills per game and continued to dominate as the match progressed, posting four of her Game 2 kills for a squad that jumped out to a 6-1 lead and from there, Wahlert (22-9) was in business the next two sets.
Carolyn Conlon, a 6-1 junior, led a Wahlert front-row effort that limited Christensen and Harms to a combined seven kills in the first two games. Senior setter Lexi Sneller (39 assists) recognized this of course and made the Warriors all the more balanced.
It’s how her younger sister became part of the balanced attack that sparked them to leading the fourth set from start to finish.
“You recognize definitely when they’re keying on someone and that allows you to open up and go to other plays they maybe don’t expect,” said Sneller. “In one way, it works. Being able to play with (Elle) has been such an amazing opportunity. I wouldn’t change it for the world. I’m so glad we were able to play together and go all the way to the championship together.”
Elle Sneller’s kill gave Sergeant Bluff-Luton a 3-0 lead to begin Game 5. Wahlert rallied to tie the set at 4-4 and 6-6, then Carter showed her serving strength. She snapped the tie with an ace serve and following a Mykenna Horchak kill, Carter added another ace to give her team a 9-6 lead and from there, the Golden Eagles never lost the lead.
“I was really passive with my serves towards the beginning of the season, it was really rough,” said Carter. “But I got it down. We really didn’t know (Sergeant Bluff-Luton), they really didn’t know us so it was a clean slate since we didn’t play them before. So I thought it was going to be a really great match.”
Sneller finished her career with 1,918 assists, all of it in the last three years. Christensen, a Northwest Missouri State recruit who began her varsity career the year before Winkel began coaching, ended with 1,070 kills, tops on the school list.
“I think we had enough left after yesterday,” said Christensen. “I think at the end, we just fell short. (Wahlert) is such an incredible team. They deserved to win it. I think we put it all on the line and we really tried our best and we really played for each other.”
Double-digit digs for the Warriors came from Abby Minten (17), Foley (16) and Lexi Sneller (10). Harms and Abby Wisecup each recorded four blocks.
Harms and Foley will, of course, return next season in hopes of a second straight state tournament, which is a distinct possibility because the MRAC had two 4A state entries in Sergeant Bluff-Luton and Bishop Heelan. Elle Sneller, another 6-foot Warrior who plays the outside also will come back along with three back row players, Minten, Brooklyn Huberty and Maya Schmidt.