Late Saturday night, I said on Twitter that I was surprised at my own reaction to Southwestern’s march to a national tournament berth that day by upsetting No. 8-ranked Kirkwood.
I’ve been doing this work for 33 years now, but there I was, with a racing heart of anticipation as SWCC, with a 2-1 lead and needing just one more win, saw its lead in set four shrink from 24-20 to 24-23.
I wanted this story to play out, for the underdog team from our coverage area to do something that hadn’t happened in 14 years, when Rita Schroeder was coach. Schroeder was in the stands Saturday to witness this. It was all too perfect to see it slip away, and if it went to a fifth set, I was worried the magic might wear off.
But, not on this night. From the moment they entered the Iowa Central gym for warmups, there was a look in the Spartans’ eyes that this was all business. They refused to show any negative body language all day, despite the fact that the nationally ranked opponent had beaten them 3-1 earlier in the season.
These Southwestern players would have no part of being intimidated. They came in loose and smiling as they flailed away at practice shots. Perhaps that was a little unnerving to the heavily-favored Eagles.
For several weeks, coach Melissa Blessington seemed confident that her team was going to win this regional, despite the fact she was still in high school the last time it happened.
For one, she had seen her team continue to make progress during a 12-match winning streak. And, she had Janaya Fox as her ace card in the hole. Fox, highly-touted transfer from Northwest Missouri State, played only in the back row in the first meeting as she was just getting back into form.
Her daughter was born Aug. 22, and then it was a gradual process of becoming the dominant hitter at the net that Blessington knew she had when Fox committed to SWCC last spring.
All Fox did was go out and bang out 23 kills and become the MVP of the regional tournament. It was her attack that put the finishing touch on the clinching 25-23 win in that fourth set.
“As soon as Janaya touches the ball, I know it’s going to be a kill,” said teammate Mel Mangrum. “I’m already jumping up and down and running to the middle (to celebrate) in my head.”
Blessington smiled at how that final point played out. She wouldn’t have been thrilled at Kirkwood rallying to take that fourth set, and having momentum heading into a short 15-point set.
“It was so fitting that Janaya Fox scored the game-winning point for our team,” Blessington said. “She was a workhorse for us and did a great job in the front row and the back row. It’s nice to have somebody out there so confident in herself. She wants the ball. She’s a fighter. She woke up with a cold today, but didn’t let it affect her at all.”
Mangrum was running to the middle of the court on the point because that was part of the well-rehearsed ritual. Every day at the end of practice, all season, they’d end with someone serving over the net for the pretend winning point at regionals, to make the national tournament. Then they’d all rush to a huddle in the middle and jump up and down in celebration.
To actually do it for real was a little surreal, said libero Molly Schimp, who had the match of her life with 54 digs in four sets.
“In my mind, nothing was going to hit the floor,” she said, after an array of diving stabs to keep balls alive. The converted setter made the all-tournament team as a defensive specialist.
Schimp successfully made the move after Blessington signed freshman setter Cassidy Yong out of Bellevue, Neb., sister of SWCC defensive specialist Serena Yong.
Yong also had the match of her life, finishing with 51 setting assists in the heavyweight match of hard-hitting teams. Yong threw the Kirkwood offense off-balance, though, with several perfectly timed quick dumps into the Eagle court rather than setting it up for a teammate’s attack. It was like she had eyes on the side of her head, as she softly directed those “kills” to openings, or made the Kirkwood defense desperately scramble to retrieve it.
“If they scramble and the setter isn’t in the perfect spot, then it’s hard to get the ball to their hitters in the perfect spot,” Yong explained. “As the ball is coming over, I look out of the corner of my eye, and see if they are where they are supposed to be.”
Anyone in town who is even thinking of being a setter in volleyball needs to come out to home matches next fall and see this girl operate. Like with Fox, Blessington over-extended SWCC’s normal range of recruiting with this talent. Wednesday she was the only setter named to the all-conference first team.
But this was hardly a tale of two or three players. Every single Spartan was intense and focused during their time on the court Saturday, whether it was serving, blocking, digging up attacks or terminating the ball.
Mangrum seemed possessed. The leaping 5-7 middle hitter just took over at times, which had to frustrate the taller Eagle hitters. She had seven kills and four blocks, which aren’t huge numbers, but each one seemed to come at a crucial time.
Last summer Mangrum couldn’t even work out, slowed by removal of a small mass in her lung. It was a long, gradual healing process to restore normal breathing for athletics. Then, she battled an Achilles tendon problem at the start of the season.
You could tell Mangrum bought in to the idea that this was her last shot, and her team did indeed have a good chance to pull it off.
During the epic set one battle, both teams served for the win several times before Kirkwood pulled out a 33-31 victory. The last point came on a SWCC lift violation called against Mangrum.
“It was strictly business when I came in here,” Mangrum said. “I knew that, even if I made a mistake, I would have to regroup and come back. I was really focused and determined.”
Alex Duffy was a veteran leader on the floor with 10 kills, promising freshman Allyson Kocour had a team-high eight blocks and 10 kills, Ashley Strong was active with Schimp and Fox in the back row with 25 digs. Shelby Sullivan chipped in seven kills.
The list goes on and on. Even sophomore outside hitter Jenna Casey, sidelined with a stress fracture, led the brigade of cheerleaders from the bench.
And, as for support in the gym, Southwestern owned that. Softball coach Lindsay Stumpff had organized a bus trip of student fans. Cross country coaches Bill Huntington and Jake Waddingham brought their team over after running in the national meet earlier in the day north of Fort Dodge, at the site of the state cross country meet.
It all made for a fun atmosphere, which Kirkwood coach Jill Williams noticed.
“They were playing and having a lot of fun,” Williams said afterward. “We allowed ourselves to get a little too tight and put too much pressure on ourselves. They made some great plays.
“It’s good to see, if it’s not us, it’s a team that’s excited and having a great time playing as a team,” Williams added. “Now, they need to go out and represent our league, and make some noise out there. Don’t just settle for getting there.”
Last year, Kirkwood was upset in the first round at nationals and came all the way back to win the consolation bracket and finish ninth. Williams said being ready to go in the opening match could be a big factor in determining Southwestern’s fate in Toledo.
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