SOLON– When that last point fell against them, tears streamed down the faces of the Lady Spartans’ volleyball team.
They hugged, then they wiped their eyes and stood with the runner-up trophy in the center of the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.
Solon, ranked No. 6 in Class 4A, had taken on the top three seeds in the tournament and had almost run the table, just running out of points to play against the No. 1 team, Charles City, in the 4A final Saturday in Cedar Rapids.
Charles City defeated Solon to claim its first-ever volleyball title, but the Lady Spartans gave them a run for the money, and came away with a trophy just as big for second place. The Comets bested the Lady Spartans in five sets, 16-25, 18-25, 25-14, 25-23, 15-13.
It was a thrilling ride for Solon, beginning with a 12-point run against No. 3 Harlan in the quarterfinal and ending with a point-for-point battle against a No. 1 team that had not lost a three-game match all year.
And it happened in the school’s second appearance at the state tournament.
Solon made an early exit from the 2011 tournament, falling in the first round to Union of LaPorte City.
This time, the Lady Spartans not only made it past the first round, they rode the rollercoaster all the way to the final point of the 4A tournament.
The voyage began with a delayed start Wednesday (Nov. 7) against the third-ranked team in 4A, Harlan.
“We had the perfect game plan and executed it flawlessly most of the night,” said Solon head coach Peter Gustin. “Rylee Smith set the tone for us immediately with two huge digs on (Harlan all-stater Jess) Schaben, followed by a Jordan Runge block. It immediately rattled their hitters and allowed us to push the game open to a 12-point lead.”
Those 12 points came while Kelsey Hinrichs was serving.
Solon triple-teamed Schaben, closed out the first game with a 25-11 win and went on to sweep Harlan out of the quarterfinals, 3-0 (25-11, 25-20, 25-20). Kelsey Cave, Jordan Smith and Jordan Runge all had 10 kills to lead the Spartans, while Hinrichs had nine.
As a team, the Spartans hit .364 of its kills, while forcing Harlan to hit .036 with 20 attack errors.
Rylee Smith had 15 digs and Emma Rickels had 36 assists to lead Solon. Hinrichs was 20-22 from the service stripe with three aces, while Rylee Smith was 16-17 with two aces.
“Our girls were relaxed, poised, and aggressive throughout the match, which probably stems from last year’s trip to state,” Gustin said. “Of course, we discussed the enhanced crowd noise and the pressure usually felt on the bigger stage, but we remained focused on the volleyball portion.”
It was a much tighter match in the semifinal Friday afternoon against No. 2 Bishop Heelan of Sioux City.
Heelan and Solon traded the serve back and forth throughout the first set, including some long volleys, but Solon was down by two points late in the game. A Vik Meade block tied things at 19, but the Lady Spartans couldn’t wrestle away the lead for good until some extra points had been played.
Solon took the first game, 27-25, but Heelan responded in another fairly tight second set, although Solon miscues helped, winning 25-21.
“Heelan presented a very difficult matchup for us due to their height across the net,” Gustin said. “We’re a particularly strong team up front, but they were just as skilled and gave us some fits. We didn’t treat ourselves as an underdog in this match.”
In the third set, things were starting to go south for the Lady Spartans.
Solon fell behind, and soon it was a 1-9 score on a Heelan service ace.
“I just told our girls that Heelan was feeding off our negative body language,” Gustin commented. “They weren’t outplaying us, and it wasn’t that we were playing poorly. We just weren’t fighting with a spark. When the girls got back on the court, it took one point to turn it all around.”
After Solon’s Meade made a tap play at the net, the Lady Spartans began to climb back, and soon it was tied, 10-10.
Solon captured the lead, and kills from Cave, Hinrichs and Jordan Smith sealed the deal, 25-23.
“This team grew mentally tough throughout the year and it just took a little bit of perseverance and belief to get back in it,” Gustin noted. “We were able to capture that set and use the momentum to finish the job in the fourth.”
That lead in that game bounced between the two teams until Jordan Smith came to the service line for Solon. Smith helped the Lady Spartans rattle off five unanswered points and take the lead for good, finishing Heelan off, 25-20.
Cave had 16 kills to lead Solon, while Runge and Hinrichs added 15 and 12 each. Rickels had 53 assists and Rylee Smith had 28 digs.
The win earned Solon a spot in the championship game against Charles City less than 24 hours later.
The top-ranked Comets were led by senior Jessie Sindlinger, and it was again Solon’s plan to concentrate on making her uncomfortable.
And it worked for the first two sets.
The Lady Spartans rolled in the first two games, 25-16 and 25-18, with all the Solon hitters contributing.
“In the third set, they began shifting her (Sindlinger) back to the pins on serve receive and we weren’t able to pull together enough blocks on her to make runs,” Gustin observed. “They are the toughest serving team we’ve seen all year, and just about the most all-around dynamic team we’ve seen as well, regardless of being a bit shorter up front.”
It turned the tables on Solon.
“In the last two sets, our hitters were tentative, arching high roll shots and tips that ended up being hit back at us,” Gustin said. “We were reluctant to use their blockers and hit the deep corners of the court.”
Charles City climbed back in with a 25-14 third set and from then out it was neck-and-neck through the final two.
Hinrichs started the fourth with two aces and Solon kicked off with a three-point lead, but the Comets tied the game at 10 and the teams then traded the lead or were tied until the final two points and a 25-23 win for Charles City.
The final set was similar, with the Lady Spartans nudging out to a modest lead early, and then battling with the Comets through ties and lead changes until Solon was down to its final two points, tied at 13.
“During the last two timeouts, I reminded the girls about what the face of a champion looks like and just told them to smile,” Gustin said of the closing moments. “I said look around and soak it all in, because this is an experience for a lifetime. Regardless of the result, as long as they played their hardest and gave a total effort, that’s all we could ask for as coaches and they wouldn’t regret that.”
The Comets scored the final two points, and took the match, 3-2.
Jordan Smith had 22 kills to lead Solon, with Cave adding 13, Hinrichs 12 and Runge 10. Rickels had 49 assists, while Rylee Smith and Hinrichs combined for 20 and 19 digs respectively.
Rylee Smith and Cave were named to the 4A 1ll-tournament team.
“There was a very solid foundation implemented for the girls in this program. We were able to develop the mental toughness and hardiness necessary to play with pressure and achieve our goals,” Gustin said of his team. “I am so grateful for this experience and in all candor, I could not be more proud of the girls and our coaching staff.
“Each night, in more than a literal sense, when we arrived to a gym, we arrived together. When we left, we left together– win or lose,” he continued. “In my mind, winning is the ultimate on-court goal, but there is something so inimitable to be said for the amazing life lessons that come from not being the top dog in the end.”
The Lady Spartans ended the season with a 33-5 record.
“The seniors have helped develop a precedent for this program that is synonymous with success, pride, respect, and teamwork,” Gustin concluded. “I believe the younger girls will use this experience to help propel this program to the next level. This won’t be the last time Solon’s name is announced at the state volleyball tournament.”