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Third time the charm for the Lady Spartans

Jordan Smith and Jess Heick frame Jordan Runge as the Solon volleyball team celebrates its Class 3A state championship on the edge of Center Court at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids Friday, Nov. 14, after defeating No. 1 Mount Vernon in straight sets in the Class 3A title game. (photo by Doug Lindner)

CEDAR RAPIDS– They believed in themselves, and it worked.
The Solon volleyball team saved its best for last, whipping through the Class 3A state tournament without losing a set and claiming the title Friday, Nov. 14, against Mount Vernon at the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
Solon enjoyed a 48-29 kill advantage over the Mustangs, led by senior Jordan Runge with 18 kills, a 66 percent kill efficiency and four blocks. Senior Jordan Smith added 13 kills and 12 digs.
The second-ranked Lady Spartans played a clean game offensively and hustled defensively, keeping No. 1 Mount Vernon off balance in all three sets, 25-13, 25-21, 25-20.
“It’s a pretty darn good feeling,” Solon head coach Peter Gustin said after the final. “It was perfect execution all week. I’m just so proud of the seniors.”
Solon swept through the tournament, taking a quarterfinal win over Iowa Falls-Alden and a semifinal victory against Nevada.
It was Solon’s fourth straight tournament appearance, its first coming in 2011 with a first-round loss in the 3A bracket. The Lady Spartans reached the 4A championship game in both 2012 and 2013, losing to two No. 1 teams in Charles City and Harlan.
“Oh my gosh, it feels amazing,” said Smith. “Like it still hasn’t even hit me yet, that we just won, I feel like we’ve got another game.”
Smith was named captain of the 2014 Class 3A All-Tournament Team, finishing the tournament with 44 kills (first), 4.89 kills per game (second), seven aces (second) and 30 digs (third). Joining her on the All-Tournament team were Runge and Nearad. Runge was fifth in kills with 31, fifth in blocks per game (0.89), 10th in kill percentage and fifth in kills per game with 3.44. Nearad had nine service aces to lead the 3A teams, was first with assists (102) and first with assists per game (11.33).
“Right when Jess (Heick) got the point I started crying because I was so happy, because I’ve never had this before,” Nearad said after the championship match. “I could not believe it. It still hasn’t hit me yet.”
Solon jumped out to an early 4-1 lead behind freshman Grace Keith’s serving and some Mustang errors, but Mount Vernon climbed back, and it was 9-8 when Keith returned to the service line.
Runge used a soft touch to find an open corner, a Mustang kill went long, a dig by Reed McCarty on defense ended up as a kill by Smith, and the Lady Spartans had built a 13-8 lead and forced a Mustang time-out.
The two teams traded blows until the score hit 15-11, when a Smith kill gave Solon the serve and Jess Heick dished up trouble for Mount Vernon.
Heick delivered two aces,forced two more errors, and the Lady Spartans were threatening to run away in the first set, 20-11.
Mount Vernon stopped the bleeding after a time-out, but a long serve gave the ball right back and Solon moved methodically to the finish with kills by Josey Hajek, Keith and Runge.
“Honestly I wasn’t nervous at all, it was more excitement,” said Runge of the first set.
Mount Vernon mounted a comeback early in the second set, and the two teams settled in for some longer points.
Unforced errors gave the Mustangs a 3-1 lead, but Solon slowly took control with a big kill by Runge, a kill by Smith, and some stellar defense.
“Some of those rallies, even the ones we lost, we haven’t played defense like that this year,” Gustin said of his team’s effort. “We left it all on the court.”
The 6-1 run by the Lady Spartans gave them a 7-4 lead that they would not relinquish.
Solon continued to control the flow, never allowing the Mustangs to string more than two points together. Meanwhile, the lead was growing.
A monster kill by Runge ricocheted into the Solon student stands to make it 18-12, and the crowd reacted. Another emphatic kill from Smith made it 19-13.
Mount Vernon rallied after Solon errors, and closed within three points, but could move no closer. A block and two kills by Runge sealed the second game.
In the third set, the conclusion seemed inevitable. Solon was playing too well to lose this time.
“I wasn’t as nervous, I know what it’s about and I know how it’s going to be, how loud it’s going to be,” Smith said of the atmosphere. “We were all just very calm with all our experience.”
Keith sparked a Solon run in the third set with a kill and a block of a Mustang dink, then Runge followed with two more big swings, the second giving Solon a 12-7 lead.
Mount Vernon cut the lead to two, 12-10, but Heick and Smith combined to serve Solon to a seven-point lead, punctuated by a big swat from Keith.
Again, the Mustangs battled back, forcing Solon errors and trimming the lead to 21-19.
But the Jordans (Runge and Smith) moved it to match point with a series of kills.
“I don’t think there was a point where we thought we couldn’t do it,” Runge said. “I figured it would go four, not three.”
The Solon bench stormed the court, Gustin pumped his fist at courtside, and an emotional celebration erupted. After the announcements of the all-tournament team and the presentation of the runner-up trophy to the Mustangs, Solon’s Courtney Smyth, out for the season with an ACL, walked out to receive the Lady Spartans’ first-place hardware and return it to the team.
Solon hobbled into the tournament without Smyth and with Hajek nursing a back injury. Gustin noted after the title game that Grace McCarty had been playing with a broken toe.
Solon had split regular season match-ups with Mount Vernon, winning in the second match of the season and then losing at a weekend tournament.
Mount Vernon’s middles had given the Lady Spartans problems, and Gustin said the game plan had been to serve tough to keep the Mustangs out of system and to keep them off the service line.
Jordan Smith was happy that it came down to Solon and Mount Vernon.
“We knew from the beginning it was going to be them,” Smith said. “With us being so close, not just being competitors, but being friends, it’s a great experience. They played well. We just wanted it more.”