FORT DODGE — There was one moment of Saturday’s Region XI-B championship volleyball match that was well-rehearsed.
When Janaya Fox stroked a kill shot for the final point of Southwestern’s 25-23 victory, giving the Spartans a 3-1 victory over eighth-ranked Kirkwood, everybody on the team knew the next move.
“We’ve been practicing that last point all season,” said sophomore all-tournament libero Molly Schimp. “Every single practice, we end with one serve that goes over, and we win and we’re going to nationals. We huddle and jump around in the middle of the court.”
This time, it was reality.
After dropping an epic battle in the first set, 33-31, the Spartans regrouped to win three straight sets 25-21, 25-23, 25-23. The region’s third-place team knocked off the second seed, and one of two nationally ranked teams in the conference.
DMACC, the top seed and ranked 13th, gained the other national tournament berth by sweeping fourth seeded Iowa Central, 3-0, in the Region XI-A final.
DMACC and Southwestern will represent the region in the NJCAA Division II National Championships Nov. 21-23 on the campus of Owens Community College in Toledo, Ohio.
It’s been a 14-year wait for Southwestern, since retired coach Rita Schroeder guided the 1999 Spartan squad to a regional title. Two years later she coached Melissa Blessington on a team that lost by two points in the fifth set of the regional final — to Kirkwood. Now, Blessington finally avenges that loss as the Spartans’ head coach.
“It’s absolutely wonderful,” said Schroeder, in attendance Saturday at Iowa Central Community College. “Melissa has worked her tail off. She’s a phenomenal recruiter for finding kids that can work with her philosophy.”
Blessington, whose 34-9 team is riding a 12-match winning streak, said it was a journey that began with getting a quality class of freshmen last year who came of age this season.
“Those girls took a chance and came to play for me after we went 10-25 the year before,” Blessington said. “To get a group of girls that good to take a chance on a program is amazing. They understood where we were going. And then we added a few key pieces this year. We’ve been saying since day one in practice that we were going to nationals. We would accept nothing less.”
There were peak performances all over the court Saturday in an effort that even impressed Kirkwood coach Jill Williams.
“They were playing and having a lot of fun, and we allowed ourselves to get a little too tight,” Williams said. “We put too much pressure on ourselves, and they made some great plays. In that fourth set, we checked out. I just think it was that sense of knowing, if we lose, we’re done.”
It was fitting that Fox put down the final kill — one of her match-high 23 terminations — because the tournament MVP didn’t even play in the front row in the earlier meeting, a 3-1 loss to the Eagles. The Northwest Missouri State transfer was beginning her comeback from giving birth. Kyla Jae Fox was born Aug. 22, and shortly thereafter Janaya was resuming workouts.
But Blessington worked her in slowly to the front row. Her presence became valuable, as outside hitter Jenna Casey suffered a stress fracture.
“They have made some changes and progressed through the season,” Williams said. “Janaya Fox didn’t play on the outside against us. Obviously she adds a big element, she’s the tournament MVP. They’re a scrappy team, dig up a lot of balls and keep it in play.”
Schimp had “the day of her life” according to teammate Ashley Strong, finishing with 54 digs. Strong was second with 25. Schimp, a strong jump-server, was 20-of-22 at the line with one ace.
Fox had a big overall match, getting 23 digs and serving 15-of-15 with two aces in addition to pounding 23 kills. Setter Cassidy Yong not only had 51 assists in four sets, but chipped in 11 kills, many on deftly-placed dumps to throw off the Eagles’ defense. She was named to the all-tournament team along with Fox and Schimp.
“I think it throws off their offense a little bit,” Yong said, “because they’d scramble, and the setter would not be in the perfect spot, and it gave our hitters a chance to get to their spot. I look out of the corner of my eye as the ball is coming over, and see if they are where they are supposed to be.”
“Cass is phenomenal,” Blessington said. “You can’t put a price on what she can do. And don’t forget, it takes somebody special in Molly Schimp and Alex Duffy to move positions. Molly went from all-region setter to all-tournament defender, and Alex moved from outside to the middle.”
Every player interviewed after the match spoke of two things — the team chemistry that carried them through the disappointment of the 33-31 opening loss, and conditioning work ordered by Blessington after matches during the season.
“Every day after games, we’d condition,” Yong said. “It was worth it. It definitely helped with our mental toughness.”
Blessington said everything was geared toward being prepared for a battle on Saturday. The 33-31 defeat was just a bump in the road.
“I said, hey, it was close, and they had to work hard and use a lot of energy to beat us,” Blessington said. “They don’t do that a lot. My girls, I’ve made them condition after games. Teams haven’t done that. It wasn’t punishment, it was because I knew we would be better from it.”
All four sets were close, but the Spartans never hit a lull.
“Our team effort was insane,” Duffy said.
“There is such a team chemistry, nobody was going to stop us today,” Strong said. “We had so much energy.”
“The motivation was crazy today,” Schimp added. “We’ve been talking about this forever. After that first game, we said, this is why they give you five rounds. And we’re going to get them in four.”
Mangrum, who underwent surgery for removal of a small lung tumor in the summer, and battled Achilles tendinitis early in the season, was a force Saturday with four blocks and seven kills. Blessington said she noticed Mangrum’s focus upon walking into the gym.
“She was ready,” Blessington said. “She’s 5-foot-8 and plays that position like she’s 6-foot-4. You couldn’t ask for more.”
“I knew it was strictly business when I came in here,” Mangrum said. “I knew even if I made a mistake, I’d have to regroup and and come back. I was really focused and determined.”
SWCC’s cross country team had competed in Fort Dodge earlier in the day in the national meet — the men placed 26th among 55 qualifiers — and they joined other students who had ridden a bus to the event in a boisterous Spartan cheering section.
“Nobody else had their sports teams here,” Blessington said. “You have no idea what that means, to have all of those people over there cheering for us. It takes so much to come here and get out of this region. Kirkwood is such a good volleyball team. Our crowd was definitely a big part of it.”
SWCC 3, Kirkwood 1
Attacks (kills) — Janaya Fox 23, Cassidy Yong 11, Allyson Kocour 10, Alex Duffy 10, Mel Mangrum 7, Shelby Sullivan 7.
Blocks — Kocour 8, Mangrum 4, Duffy 3.
Serving (aces) — Fox 15-15 (2), Molly Schimp 20-22 (1).
Setting (assists) — C. Yong 51.
Digs — Schimp 54, Ashley Strong 25, Fox 23, C. Yong 21.