Shannon Stamp hits against Cedar Fall. Jackie Blake Jensen/IC Pixx. By Clete Campbell
For Your Prep Sports
DUBUQUE – On this all-or-nothing night, the City High Little Hawks could see the bright lights of the Iowa state volleyball tournament just three points away.
But a Halloween night when they were almost the ultimate drama queens, the Little Hawks didn't see Dubuque Hempstead's dynamic freshman attack duo of Jada Wills and Aliyah Carter coming until it was a critical split second too late in Monday's Class 5A Region 7 final at Moody Gym.
Wills turned the decisive fifth set with three consecutive kills and Carter buried the checkmate match point shot as the Mustangs repelled City High's poised rally from a two-set deficit and punched a ticket to Cedar Rapids with a thrilling 3-2 (25-21, 25-18, 17-25, 19-25, 15-13) victory over the Little Hawks.
“We were the first one to 5 (in the fifth set), we beat them to 10 (points), we had 12, but it always goes back to we talk so much about getting to state, and then you see the finish line and you want to cross it before you're there,” City High coach Craig Pitcher said. “The (points) that people remember are the points that happen at the end.
“They saw the finish line and tried to coast in there as opposed to working (to the end) for it.”
And City High couldn't slide over in time to stop Carter from flooring a bullet on match point.
“I'm in shock,” Carter said. “We knew we had to do it for our team.”
This was almost a most remarkable comeback story with City High (which finished 20-15) bouncing back from two flat sets to move within the city lights of state.
With Alexa Aldrich-Ingram (a team-high 15 kills) and Ellie Evans and Shannon James (10 kills apiece) leading the way, City High frantically fought back to even the match at two sets apiece and shot to a 10-7 lead in the winner-takes-a-state ticket fifth set.
Alas, the Little Hawks couldn't finish the final chapter.
But in a single-match season, one bad funk can cost you everything. The annals of sports have thousands of volumes of cautionary tales of promising playoff runs undone by ill-timed slumps.
For the Little Hawks, their undoing was five attack errors and a service error that cost them six points in Game 5. No mistake was more critical than City High's inability to put Lauren Ludescher's serve in play with the match deadlocked at 12.
“It's a microcosm of our whole season,” Pitcher said. “At times when we didn't play well, it's six individuals out there. In Game three, they realized they had City High on their shirts and not individual names, the team aspect kicked in.”
The Mississippi Valley Conference opponents split a pair of hotly contested matches during the season. But Hempstead (23-10) was in the driver's seat for much of the early going of this winner-take-all rubber match.
A swing first set swung the Mustangs' way for good when Morgan Kluesner unlocked a 12-all game with a cross-court kill shot. Hempstead wouldn't trail again in the opener, calling 25-21 checkmate on Amber Cooksley's block of Alexa Aldrich-Ingram.
The Little Hawks couldn't gain flight in a sloppy second set with Hempstead again seizing momentum mid-set.
Attack errors (nine in the set), passing breakdowns and the fierce power of Carter and Jada Wills (who combined for 30 kills) kept City High flying backward. Kluesner's hard set-point kill shot dropped City High into a daunting and deep 0-2 hole.
“Wills kept us leaning a different way on some of her hits,” Pitcher said.
City High senior Alexa Aldrich-IngramWith their season on the brink, the Little Hawks came to life in the third with their best set of the night.
Clean serving (just one service error), some thunder hitting by 6-foot-1 middle blocker Shannon Stamp and an ability to finally rattle Hempstead out of system allowed City High to stay alive. James went cross-court with a beautiful sidewinder to seal the 25-17 stay alive win.
Set four saw City High continue its manic rally off the cliff with James dazzling and setters Sydney Schroder (15 assists) and Aldrich-Ingram (13) keeping the Little Hawks passing in system and rallying. Evans' perfectly placed back-line shot broke an 11-all tie and put City High ahead for good.
But Game five was Hempstead regrouping after two sets in which it misfired on 13 kill attempts behind its sky's-the-limit, 14-year-old tandem of Wills and Carter.
Wills machine-gunned three straight points to erase an 8-4 City High lead and prevent the Little Hawks from running away with the fifth set.
“They play so much beyond their years,” Mustangs coach Travis Wills said. “They're volleyball players first and foremost. This is what they do. I have the utmost faith in them.”
A match that looked dead even on paper turned out to be even closer on the court. Alas, Hempstead proved to be a mere two points better than the Little Hawks.
But those two points carried Hempstead to state this Halloween and kept the Little Hawks home.
“Travis and I talked before the match and I thought it was 60-40 for us coming in and he thought it was 60-40 for them,” Pitcher said, “and it ended up 51-49 for them.”