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Gladbrook-Reinbeck bows to three-time defending champion Janesville

November 8, 2018
Thorn Compton T-R Assistant Sports Editor , Reinbeck Courier

CEDAR RAPIDS - When the final point was scored and the Gladbrook-Reinbeck volleyball team's season came to an end on Wednesday with a loss to Janesville in the opening round of the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament, there were few tears shed by the defeated girls.

Instead, the Rebels congratulated the three-time defending Class 1A champion Wildcats on a three-set victory, 25-14, 25-21, 25-13, then turned around and celebrated amongst themselves when handed their state-qualifier trophy, the first time G-R brought home a trophy from the volleyball state tournament in 30 years.

It wasn't until after they were handed the trophy that sadness crept upon some of the girls' faces, mainly on the faces of the seniors who knew this was the last time they would all be together on one volleyball court.

Article Photos

T-R PHOTO BY THORN COMPTON - Gladbrook-Reinbeck senior Meriah Wittgreve (16) hoists the state-qualifier trophy while surrounded by her teammates after the Rebels’ fell to Janesville in the opening round of the Iowa Girls High School State Volleyball Tournament on Wednesday at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.

Still, senior Meriah Wittgreve said even though their time with the Rebels was at an end, they all knew what they had done bringing the team back to state for the first time in three decades was truly historic.

"I am absolutely so proud of my whole team," Wittgreve said, her voice cracking as she fought back tears. "It's hard for me to say, 'I'm going to miss this,' because I have another season after this with club but a lot of our girls don't and this is it for them. It's really hard for them to go through this."

It was always going to be an uphill battle against Janesville (44-5), who hadn't lost a set at state in it's last two title runs, but Gladbrook-Reinbeck (28-10) landed blows early and often in the first two sets.

The Rebels jumped out with a hot start in the first set, forcing a Wildcat timeout when they took a 5-0 lead, but once G-R was up 8-3, Janesville went on an 8-0 run that kickstarted their offense to a 25-14 win in the opening game.

Again the Rebels found themselves up 8-3 in the second set but the Wildcats were able to claw back, but Janesville did just enough to hold on for a 25-21 win in the second.

That 25-21 second-game score was the closest first-round set Janesville has played since 2015, and Rebel sophomore Saari Kuehl said even in the loss they showed the state they came to play.

"We were just saying we can do this and we had to show them what we had. We believed we could do it," Kuehl said. "We are proud of ourselves for showing them what we had and that we deserved to be here."

What plagued G-R throughout all three sets were tiny errors, whether that be a missed pass or a mishandled serve, and against a team like the Wildcats that is enough to do you in.

"Today we were a little disoriented at times but Janesville did a great job of getting us out of system and that's what good teams do," Rebel head coach Paula Kelley said. "We knew we needed to stay with them until the end because at the end you never know what's going to happen. We kind of just pushed, but once it got a little far away from us in the middle of the set it's hard to play catch-up against a great team. Everybody is a great team down here at this time, so you can't give up big leads like that."

Janesville head coach Shelly Sorensen had to give a similar message to her team after their slow start in the first two sets, but she said their experience is what ultimately lifted them to victory.

"They just needed to settle down and take care of that first ball, that was the name of the game so we could get our offense running," Sorensen said. "They had a few little streaks like that throughout the match but we were able to stay composed and settle down, get some good digs and turn it into offense for us.

"They have been through this and we play tough competition all year long. They've been able to, even when we are down, find a way to fight back and just keep going."

Wildcat senior Bree Thompson, who will play Division-I volleyball next year at Lipscomb University, finished with a game-high 20 kills. Kuehl nearly matched that number with 17 kills of her own for the 11th-ranked Rebels, but what Kelley said top-rated Janesville was able to do that her girls weren't was get other players involved.

"They were a little more balanced with their other hitters and we just couldn't get our other hitters going as well as we like to do," Kelley said. "That is a testament to how good of a team they are that we couldn't get our system going with the type of passes that we had today."

Alisa Bengen had nine kills to place second for the Wildcats and Julia Meister contributed six. Haleigh Berendes was second for the Rebels with four kills, and Wittgreve followed with two.

Janesville also had 16 aces in the match, compared to four for G-R. Wittgreve said the crowd noise and the environment contributed to their inability to handle the Wildcat serves at times.

"I definitely think for a lot of the girls this was very overwhelming for them," she said. "A lot of the screaming, they had our student section behind us, mocking us and the whole thing, and sometimes it's hard to ignore that."

Still, down big in the third set and with their season hanging in the balance, many girls like Justina Eggers and Madison Denny-Weber were going all out to save balls, putting their bodies on the line just to keep the ball up and keep the time from running out on their year.

"With just everyone screaming for us, our adrenaline was going crazy," Denny-Weber said. "We wanted to be everywhere at once and we couldn't keep our feet still, we can't stop. I think that was what kept us going every time."

Denny-Weber had 20 assists to lead the Rebels, while Alyssa Morgan had nine digs, followed by Denny-Weber with seven and Kuehl with five.

Janesville senior Lily Liekweg, who is committed to play at Wichita State University next year, had 20 digs for the Wildcats, and Sorenson said she's the main reason Kuehl didn't destroy their back line.

"She was tough but I thought we did a good job once we got going of putting pressure on her and making sure we are serving as tough as we can but keep it in play," Sorenson said. "We came up with a few digs, Liekweg came up with a few big ones in the back court so we could slow her down."

No matter the outcome of this game, Kelley said this was still an incredible run for a Gladbrook-Reinbeck team that wasn't on anyone's radar as a state contender to start the year.

"We peaked and this is exactly where you want to do that. You want to peak at the end of the season and we did," she said. "They have a lot to be proud of, these seven seniors are the stepping stones. Last year we had six seniors and this year seven, it just keeps growing and that's how you build legacies and dynasties at schools, every year everyone has to step up. There's a lot of these kids that played on the junior varsity or freshman level that had to step up and they did. We have kids sitting on the bench that will step up next year and they get to see and feel the taste of this and they are like, 'I want to go back.'"

Wittgreve said not even just this season, but the last two seasons playing under Kelley - both of which were 20-win years after going without a winning record in the last five years - was an unbelievable experience.

"Especially coming from last year, we completely turned our season around and being able to go even a step further this year was absolutely amazing," she said. "I am so proud of every single person who was a part of the team or supported us along the way. It's awesome to see our community come together like that, it really makes you proud."

Denny-Weber agreed with her fellow senior, saying she will remember this season and the support from the community for the rest of her life.

"I wouldn't trade it for anything in the world," she said. "I am so proud of this team, I've been playing with it for a long time and I knew that someday we could make history with this school and we did. We proved ourselves that we could."

The Rebels will have to find a way to replace the seven seniors - Wittgreve, Denny-Weber, Eggers, Berendes, Rachael Scarf, Rachel Cooley and Jada Schlampp - and Kelley said it will take more than their on-court ability.

"I'm going to miss them, they are all individuals and yet they are all the same," she said. "They care, they have a little sass to them but that makes them fun."

Luckily there are two great pillars to build around in Kuehl, who finishes the year second in kills behind Janesville's Thompson, and Morgan, a libero who is still coming into her own defensively.

"They will be the two leaders on the court just because of experience and knowledge," Kelley said. "We spent some time yesterday talking with elementary kids and they were excited, and that inspires those kids as they start to come up. This legacy isn't just for the next few years, in the stands there were a ton of girls out there that are ready to come in, they want to be here at this level and it builds from there."

Kuehl said if she has anything to say about it, it won't be another 30 years until Gladbrook-Reinbeck is back in the state tournament.

"I think everyone has had a taste of it now and everyone is going to want it again," she said. "We have to come out hard next year too. It all comes down to the basics."



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