AFTON — In the battle of the mentor vs. the protege, this time the mentor came away victorious.
Thursday night marked the return of East Union graduate Mallory Peterson to the East Union gymnasium, this time as head coach of the visiting Interstate 35 Roadrunners.
But the young upstart couldn’t quite pull off the win against her high school coach Gail Thatcher and the Eagles, as East Union held on for a 23-25, 25-22, 25-21, 11-25, 15-13 win.
Cheering sections for both teams were riled up for the majority of the night, as the action on the court was back and forth, with plenty of long rallies.
“That was a lot of fun tonight,” Thatcher said. “There were some stressful times, but that was fun volleyball tonight. It makes it more fun when you’re the winner, but both teams were playing well, girls were executing. I was happy with how my team played tonight.”
Things got off to a rocky start for East Union, as Interstate 35 built an early 19-9 lead in game one, and later led 21-14.
But, with Kali Mertens at the service line, East Union rallied to tie the game at 21-21 as the service string ended with an ace by Mertens and back-to-back points by McKayle Dudney.
“McKayle has really stepped up,” Thatcher said. “She’s finally found her home as a middle hitter. At the beginning of the year, she started off as a setter. That wasn’t working and we moved her around to outside hitter and now she’s found a really great home as a middle hitter.”
Jenna Sandquist put an end to East Union’s rally, though, giving Interstate 35 the game.
Chay Blondowski and Dudney got off to a hot start in game two, however, and East Union built a 16-11 lead.
“Chay Blondowski did a great job in the first three for us,” Thatcher said. “She had some key kills and really was on top the ball and did a great job.”
But, just like it went for most of the night, the team trailing found a way to fight back into the game, as Interstate 35 closed it to 22-21, before Kelsey Hoff eventually put the game away with an ace to even the match.
As the Roadrunners built an 11-6 lead in game three, East Union went on a long service string, this time by Dudney, to take a 14-11 lead.
The two teams went back and forth to 20-20, but Interstate 35 lost points twice in the final five points for rotation violations, and East Union won 25-21.
With their backs against the wall in game four, the Roadrunners built a 7-2 lead, and at 17-11, Sandquist served the final seven points of the game to force a fifth and final game.
East Union built a 5-0 lead in the game to 15, but Interstate 35 eventually tied things at 7-7.
Back-to-back kills by Dudney and Hoff gave the Eagles a 12-8 lead, but once again, Interstate 35 came back, making it 12-10 and later 14-13, before an errant pass gave East Union the win.
Hoff led the Eagles with 12 kills, while Dudney added 10. Blondowski finished with nine and Mertens recorded eight.
Courtney Phelps set 36 assists for the Eagles, while Brittany Malone once again played solid defense for East Union with 36 digs.
“Our libero, Brittany Malone — a lot of people think I’m crazy running her there, but she has made it possible for this to happen,” Thatcher said.
The big five-game win comes at a crucial time for an Eagle team looking to build some confidence as it prepares for the postseason.
“This is a really good win for us,” Thatcher said. “We’ve been needing one of these. It really brings confidence to the girls. It’s something I thought we were lacking Tuesday night.”
For Peterson, in her first season as head coach of the Roadrunners after serving as an assistant coach at Creston last year, being on visiting bench in the East Union gymnasium was a different feeling.
“It was fun,” she said. “I’ve been looking forward to this match and my girls were excited for it, too. It was a bit nerve-wracking. It was a bit weird being on the visiting side in this gym, but it’s something we’ve all been looking forward to as a team. Gail and Naomi (Sharp), they’ve mentored me in coaching. It’s an awesome relationship that we have, and to have it in this atmosphere was awesome. The crowds were both into it. It was a neat game.”
Thatcher said taking on a former player was exciting.
“It’s a lot of fun, especially when you’ve coached somebody and watched them grow up and mature and become an excellent coach,” she said. “Coaching against her is a challenge and that makes it more fun.”
East Union, now 9-13 for the season, travels to Mount Ayr on Tuesday for the regular season finale. Interstate 35 drops to 11-9 for the season and sees its five-match winning streak snapped.
East Union statistics
Serving (aces) — Courtney Phelps 21-21, Kali Mertens 19-21 (1), Kelsey Hoff 11-11 (1), Emily Eckels 11-13 (2), Brittany Malone 15-15, McKayle Dudney 18-18 (1).
Attacks (kills) — Hoff 12, Dudney 10, Chay Blondowski 9, Mertens 8.
Blocks (solo-assists) — Dudney 2-0, Mertens 0-1, Hoff 0-1.
Setting (assists) — Phelps 36.
Digs — Malone 36, Mertens 20, Phelps 17, Alyssa Proffitt 12, Eckels 11, Blondowski 10.