CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa | Mary Miller called Kylee Christensen a difference maker Tuesday afternoon.
During the Class 4A state volleyball tournament opener, Coach Miller’s Bishop Heelan squad registered one solo block and 14 block assists. Sergeant Bluff-Luton had one solo and 12 block assists.
Christensen found success in launching kills past Heelan’s block. The 6-foot Sergeant Bluff-Luton senior middle hitter pounded a match-high 22 kills for a program that posted the victory in the first-ever state tourney match involving Missouri River Activities Conference teams, 20-25, 25-18, 25-22, 25-21 at the U.S. Cellular Center.
“(Christensen) has such a fast arm and she hits from all places on the court,” said Miller. “Left, middle or right, it’s so hard to get a rhythm with her. You can’t figure out when to jump a lot of times because she’s hitting all kind of sets. (Elle) Sneller did a nice job too.”
Christensen was part of the 2015 squad that dropped a four-set match to Kuemper Catholic in the first round of the Class 3A state tournament. Middle blocker Madison Harms and setter Lexi Sneller also experienced that defeat, but were the heart and soul of a squad that defeated Game 1 jitters en route to not only their fourth win over Heelan in as many matches this season, but their first state tournament victory, ever.
“We were a little nervous, but we were super-familiar with Heelan,” said Christensen. “We know how they play and they know how we play. We were nervous, but we were also pretty calm tonight. We just need to keep winning and keep playing together because we don’t want this season to end. We need to keep playing our game, use everything we’ve learned since the summer, work hard and I think we’ll be good.”
Harms contributed 15 kills and six block assists for Sergeant Bluff-Luton, which will take a 41-3 record into Thursday’s noon semifinal match against No. 1 Cedar Rapids Xavier (32-9). Elle Sneller added 10 kills and two block assists for Coach Renee Winkel’s Warriors while her older sister Lexi dished 49 assists. Libero Abby Minten had 20 kills while Kenzie Foley had one solo block and two block assists.
Each team had to be at their blocking best because of the stellar hitters on the other side of the net. Harms has 24 blocks and 147 block assists heading into the state semis. She and Foley dealt several times with the likes of Heelan’s 6-footer outside hitters, Samantha McCabe (20 kills, 1 block assist) and Nicole Jacobson (16 kills, 3 block assists).
“The block, when it’s set, it really helps our defense be able to read where the ball is going,” said Harms. “If we don’t block it, we’re still taking up space, but defense can go around and pass the ball easier. It’s tough (to block Heelan). They have lots of shots. Mary Miller does a great job mixing up their shots where they’re hitting, so it’s tough to read where the block is.”
“Getting blocked definitely gets in the opponent’s head,” said Winkel. “Our girls, being able to get so many blocks in key moments definitely helps us out. It helped shift the momentum of the game.”
Jacobson’s kill past Harms gave Heelan (33-11) a 17-16 Game 1 lead and from there, the Crusaders were in control while finishing the set. Following a Katelyn Stanley kill, Heelan went up 23-19 but after a Foley kill, McCabe dealt two straight kills to close the set.
Sergeant Bluff-Luton’s Game 2 victory followed a trend as in the four matches between the two MRAC rivals, it was always even headed into the third set. The combination of a Heelan serving error and a Foley block snapped an 8-8 Game 3 tie and gave the Warriors the lead the rest of the set.
Sergeant Bluff-Luton rallied from an 8-5 deficit to force six Game 4 ties, the latest at 14-all on Harms’ kill. Harms took over, snapping the deadlock on a block, while her two consecutive kills produced an 18-14 lead.
The closest Heelan came the rest of the way was 18-17 on Allison Bermel’s ace serve.
“I’m going to remember my team a lot,” said McCabe. “This is the best team chemistry that I’ve had with my team for a long time. They’re amazing. We put it all out on the floor. Our saying this year was “All In” and we were all in the whole match. It just didn’t pan out how we wanted it to.”
Setters Emma LaFleur and Jordyn Knapp dealt 23 and 19 assists, respectively, in the Crusaders’ 23rd state appearance. Bermel had a team-best 22 digs while Alex Hope was the match’s leader with three ace serves.
Winkel will shoot for her 106th career win in three seasons with the Warriors Thursday. There will be another big blocking assignment as 6-foot outside hitter Charlotte Richards (401 kills) delivered 14 kills in Xavier’s sweep over Independence.
“We’ve got big goals as a team,” said Winkel. “We have a lot of scouting to do.”