Charles City's Champs

Published on November 13, 2013 in the Charles City Press

CEDAR RAPIDS – The one thing that the top-ranked Charles City Comet volleyball team never learned to do this season was panic. No matter how pressure packed the situation, Charles City (45-1) faced the challenge with a confident calmness that carried it to its first ever volleyball state championship with a 3-2 (16-25, 18-25, 25-24, 25-23, 15 13) victory over No. 6 Solon (33-5) in the Class 4A championship game on Saturday at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena.

"It feels awesome. It is hard to explain, it hasn't hit yet that we just won three games in a row in the state finals," said senior left side hitter Jessie Sindlinger, who was named the all-tournament team captain. "We all played together really strong. I think we just played with a lot of heart. We want to thank our family and friends that came down, we couldn't do it without any of them. Our coaches also helped us a lot. We play together as a family."

Prospects looked bleak for the Comets after they got off to a slow start against a red-hot Solon team. The Spartans came out fast, grabbing an 11-5 lead and coasting to a 25-16 victory in the first set. In the second game, the Comets played a little bit better early on, tying the score at 11, but Solon once again pulled away, ending the set on a 15-7 run to go up 2-0 and come within a set of a state championship.

"They were very sharp, they serve receive the ball very well and they have got a great offensive team," said Charles City Head Coach Matt Johnson. "It is really hard for a small team like us to figure out where to set the block, they were getting it right on their setter's head and they were getting great swings on the ball."

Panic, however, would just not grab hold of the Comets. Where a lesser team may have folded and accepted second place, Charles City buckled down and redoubled its efforts.

"I just told everybody to play our game and anything was possible," Sindlinger said. "We just all believed we could — and came through. We knew we had to pick up our defense, pass the ball and open up our offense."

Charles City responded, scoring the first four points of the third set as part of a 9-1 run to open the game. They coasted to a 25-14 win to close the gap from two games to one.

After getting caught off guard in the third set, Solon was ready for Charles City again in the fourth set, jumping out to an early 4-0 lead. Once again, the Comets faced the challenge with composure and fought their way back to tie the game at 10-10.

The rest of the match was a slug fest, as each team sided out to keep the game tied on every other point from points 12 to 23. The Comets continued to fight and picked up the last two points in the match for a 25-23 win, tying the game at two games apiece and forcing the first fifth set that Charles City has played all season long.

"The fourth one was tough, especially near the end there," Johnson said. "As a coaching staff, we just wanted to get to one match point and see what they do. It was the same thing in the fifth set. The amazing thing was, there wasn't a lot of nerves on our side. They were pretty relaxed playing. It was just a matter of playing the way we wanted our fans to see and what we want them to remember this team by."

In the shortened fifth set, Charles City stumbled a little bit out of the gate, going down 6-3 early. Just like every time they found themselves in a tight spot, they just started chipping away at the lead. Before they knew it, the Comets had scored four straight points, taking a 7-6 lead and forcing a timeout by Solon.

"We all had our own things that we had to focus on and we did a very good job of that in the last game I think," said sophomore setter Hali Hillegas. "Everything came together and it just worked."

After the Solon time out, the teams once again battled back and forth. Neither team could go ahead by more than one point until Charles City strung a couple points together to grab a 13-11 lead and force another timeout by Solon.

The Spartans came back rejuvenated and tied the game back up at 13-13 and forced Charles City to take a timeout of its own. During the break, the Comets' resolve tightened as Sindlinger encouraged her teammates as she had done countless times throughout the game and the season.

"I went up to each and every one (of my teammates) and said, ‘We can do this. It will happen if we believe in ourselves,'" Sindlinger said.

The team bought in, and they stopped the skid on the very next point, to force a match point at 14-13.

Two blocks by junior middle Cady Wendel later and the comeback was complete. Charles City was the Class 4A state champion.

"It is pretty unreal," said senior Torey Buenger. "It didn't sink in for a while, then when we saw all the fans and everything it finally hit us. We just won!"

Sindlinger led the team with 16 kills, tied for the team lead with four blocks and she added 13 digs in the match. It was the third straight game in the state tournament that Sindlinger led the team in kills, as she was named the captain of the all-tournament team. Hillegas also played a big role in the team's comeback to top off a great tournament and earn a spot on the all-tournament team as well.

Hillegas finished the championship match with 52 assists.

"I thought Hali did a lot better job of setting middle, especially early in points and off of the serve receive to hold their middles a little bit," Johnson said. "Then Torey (Buenger) and Cady (Wendel) just ran middle hard in those last three games, so even when they weren't getting the ball, they were holding the middle and we were getting a little bit better swings on the outside."

While Sindlinger racked up the big kill numbers, Buenger and Wendel continued to make the most of the swings that they got. Buegner had 14 kills on 21 attemps and Wendel had six kills on 10 attempts. Wendel also tied for a team-high four blocks in the match and Buenger added three for the Comets.

Jackie Foster added 11 kills to go along with a team-high 20 digs.

Senior libero Morgan Holzer had 17 digs and Hillegas chipped in nine digs for Charles City.

After the game, the Comets took a bus to Waterloo, where there was a limo waiting to usher them into Charles City.

Following a parade through town, there was a reception at the Elks Lodge for the players and fans.

Mayor James Erb congratulated the girls on their incredible accomplishment this season. Johnson talked about what made this year's team so special.

"The one thing that these girls did a great job of all year was not worrying about the state tournament in November," Johnson said. "They were worried about what the next game was going to look like, what the game after that was going to look like, and what every point in the middle of the game was going to look like. This group has just been really good about setting a goal, and knowing what it takes to get there.

"They just do the little things that they need to do along the way. I think today was kind of a microcosm of that and how the whole season went."

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