CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | Northwest Iowa had never experienced the thrill of four teams reaching the state volleyball tournament finals until Thursday night.
There was such a wave of emotion following the five-game semifinal victories achieved by three of those schools, beginning with Sergeant Bluff-Luton in Class 4A, followed by Sioux Center and Gehlen Catholic in 3A and 1A, respectively. Gehlen was the only one of those programs which had ever reached a title match, falling to Tripoli in 2011, the same year that Western Christian lost to Dike-New Hartford in the 2A finals and Bishop Heelan was defeated by Waverly-Shell Rock in 3A.
Tammi Veerbeek had guided 15 of her 16 previous teams to the 2A finals. She may have expected the Wolfpack to get there, but considering the heavy graduation loss from last year’s title squad, she questioned the chance of a three-peat against powerful Dike-New Hartford.
“It’s never fun to lose, but we give respect to Dike,” said Veerbeek. “We told the girls we graduated six seniors last year, the player of the year (Karsyn Winterfeld) and we’re back in the state championship match basically with a whole new set of players.
“Not a lot of teams can do that. I tip my hat to my kids. We’re not the better team, they were the better team. We can accept that, we battled and Dike is a powerhouse this year.”
Emotional behind-the-scenes stories also came from Siouxland’s three other Friday finalists, beginning with Sergeant Bluff-Luton.
Sisters Lexi and Elle Sneller were there for each other. Dubuque Wahlert’s five-game win over the Warriors was partially inspired by a duo of imposing blockers, 6-1 Carolyn Conlon and 6-foot Jenna Gremmel, who often shielded the Warriors’ powerful middle hitters (and All-Tournament selections) 6-foot Kylee Christensen and 6-2 Madison Harms.
Elle Sneller, a 6-foot sophomore outside hitter, suddenly found herself becoming a bigger part of the offense, thanks to her sister the setter.
“I know we give each other certain looks because we know we gotta pull through,” said Elle, whose 13 kills in the match gave her 35 for the tournament. “She’s all teamwork. I love playing with her out there. We’re really close.”
Elle Sneller and Madison Harms are among eight underclassmen who give Coach Renee Winkel’s Warriors a chance to contend for another 4A title next year.
“I definitely will miss her next year and hopefully, she misses me,” said Lexi, who plans to attend Iowa State. “I’ll always remember this team and how amazing they were. I love each and every one of them. I’ll remember my coach. She’s just one of a kind.”
Julie Oldenkamp sniffed a few times following the 3A title loss to Waterloo Columbus while revealing memories of coaching a senior-dominated Sioux Center squad who set fine examples for younger teammates.
She will miss All-Tournament selections Alexis Toering and Jordyn VanMaanen. The same can be said for fellow seniors Camryn Cleveringa, Shayla Post and Jade Erdman who also guided junior Alyssa Mulder and sophomore Makennah Traver, not only in the loss to the Sailors but throughout the course of the season.
“(The seniors) have been great leaders for the underclassmen on the roster,” said Oldenkamp. “I couldn’t be prouder of this group. This is a highlight for our program obviously because we’ve never done this before. Hopefully we can learn from it and keep building.”
Veerbeek will continue to build a young Western Christian squad that played three juniors and two sophomores against powerful Dike-New Hartford.
Among the four seniors was her daughter, 6-2 middle hitter Ashtyn Veerbeek, 2A’s leader this year in kills (550) and blocks (132). She and classmate Jessi De Jager were 2A All-Tournament selections.
“Awesome memories, having that bond with her,” said Veerbeek. “Every practice, we’d ride home together. I got to play my daughter in a state championship game four years in a row. We won two state championships (2015, 2016) and we had 2 state runnerups (2014, 2017). Any other coach would just dream of that with their daughter. I’ve been very blessed with the opportunity to experience some amazing things with Ashtyn.”
One thing tired Gehlen Catholic Coach Mike Meyer couldn’t forget after the 1A loss to Janesville was how proud he was of a team which accomplished goals set many months earlier.
“When I met with all of the returning kids last spring, every one of them said the one thing we had to work on is to get tougher and I know what they meant, tougher mentally and more competitive,” said Meyer, whose squad, represented on the 1A All-Tournament Team by Katie Peters and Chloe Bunkers, advanced with grueling five-game victories over Tripoli and Springville.
“We showed that toughness up here. As a coach, it’s something that makes you pretty proud when these kids learn they can make those kind of changes. We had a saying at times how we have to grow what we go through. I think I’ve seen a lot of growth. Those other games the last two nights, it’s easy for me to sit back and smile because I could see the growing take place in front of my eyes. I’m very proud of them for that.”