CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | Challenged as hard as they were Thursday afternoon was a good thing for the two-time defending Class 2A state volleyball champions.
Second-ranked Western Christian still posted a 25-16, 25-21, 25-21 semifinal sweep over No. 3 Grundy Center, but action at the U.S. Cellular Center was far from easy, especially in the final two sets. Coach Tammi Veerbeek’s squad rallied from a 21-19 deficit to win Game 2 then faced a 13-9 difference in the third game prior to completing the sweep.
“Grundy Center was a great team and they really pushed us,” said middle hitter Ashtyn Veerbeek, who provided 13 kills and three blocks for a Western Christian squad that will take a 39-6 record into Friday afternoon’s 4:45 2A title match against No. 1 Dike-New Hartford (49-3).
“That’s going to help us for tomorrow. Dike-New Hartford is a great team. Just having a tough competitor like Grundy Center push us, it’s to help us. Grundy didn’t let the ball hit the floor. They’re a great team.”
Jessi De Jager provided 15 kills and three blocks for Western Christian, which will face a team that a year ago, won the Class 3A title. The Western Christian/Dike-New Hartford rivalry is one of the most intense in state volleyball tournament history. It’s the first time the two teams have met in the 2A finals since 2014 when the Wolverines posted the fourth straight championship win over the Wolfpack.
Western Christian has 16 state titles (10 coached by Veerbeek) and Dike-New Hartford has 12. Veerbeek, with a win this afternoon will not only get a three-peat, but she’ll be tied with former Dubuque Wahlert Coach Tom Keating, who has the current record of 11 state championships.
“I have the utmost respect for Diane and their program,” said Coach Veerbeek. “It’s a dynasty over there. Dike and ourselves have had many, many battles throughout the years.
“To be honest, our team hasn’t talked about them at all. We’ve done us this whole year because we wanted to get to this game. We know we’re going to have to play extremely well. I tell our girls, they tie their shoes the same way as us.”
Olivia Granstra supplied 21 assists, 10 digs, three ace serves and one block for a tradition-rich Western Christian program that’s in the state finals for the 16th time in the last 17 years. Fellow setter Tori Wynja delivered nine assists, seven digs and an ace serve while Madison Hofman provided nine digs, two ace serves and a block.
Hailey Wallis recorded nine kills and Kylie Willis added seven kills for Grundy Center (37-7). Teammate Landry Luhring provided the kill that gave Coach Lori Willis’ squad the 21-19 advantage.
De Jager’s kill started Western Christian’s comeback. The combination of a Grundy Center attack error and Granstra’s ace serve produced a 22-21 lead and from there, the Wolfpack were in control.
“It’s tough to close a team like Western Christian out because they can do a bunch of different things,” said Coach Willis. “They got most of their kills off tips. You don’t really see that too often. They were tipping the ball and putting the ball where we weren’t. That’s really hard to defend.”
Grundy Center took a 13-9 Game 3 lead on an uncharacteristic attack error from Veerbeek, Class 2A’s leader with 539 kills. The University of Nebraska women’s basketball recruit posted two straight kills to force a 14-14 tie while Cori De Jong’s kill, followed by Hofman’s ace serve, gave the Wolfpack the lead for keeps.
“This wasn’t the best volleyball we played, but we found a way when we needed to,” said Coach Veerbeek. “What made me nervous about Grundy was they’re very balanced. I like to play a team with two great hitters, then we can focus on them. They have a very balanced attack. They run a 6-2 so they have hitters coming at you all the time which makes it very hard on our blockers. Our middles really had to work.”