WEST LIBERTY, Iowa − Wilton volleyball coach Brenda Grunder scanned her clipboard, searching for answers in the aftermath of her team’s season-ending loss to Iowa City Regina in the Class 2A Region 8 substate championship match.
“That’s it, that explains it,” Grunder muttered to herself.
Grunder was referring to Wilton’s errors, which haunted the team throughout the match on Halloween night and was the main culprit in a 25-7, 25-18, 25-19 season-ending loss at the hands of Iowa City Regina. The Beavers had 15 kill errors in the match, just three fewer than their 18 kills in an uncharacteristic three sets.
“That’s not our team,” Grunder said. “We didn’t bring our offensive attack like we had been able to in the past and that was on our ball control.”
It was apparent from the opening moments of the match that the Beavers (34-6) weren’t themselves. The Regals (28-8) opened up an 8-2 lead to start the match, and there were plenty of miscommunications, defensive breakdowns, and even players running into one another while pursuing the ball for the Beavers.
“That’s not our normal movement,” Grunder said. “Our communication broke down, and that hasn’t been the pattern (for us). Just too many unforced errors and opportunities for them to come back at us.”
Although the problems were easy to spot and identify on Tuesday night, the reason for them was not. Wilton focuses as much on the mental aspect of volleyball and volleyball IQ as the physical part of the game, and Grunder felt all three of those pieces were “right on target” entering the regional championship against a Regina team it lost to in a close, hard fought five-set match in September.
“I think we were anxious to play the match, but I think we were anxious because we felt we were ready," Grunder said. "We weren’t overconfident and we weren’t lacking confidence.
“I’m going to be up late tonight trying to figure out exactly what happened.”
After opening up an early 8-2 lead the opening set was all Regina, as the Regals routed the Beavers 25-7 behind an overpowering offensive attack that left the Beavers on the defensive the entire set.
“I know Regina mixed it up with serves, but we’ve faced those serves before,” Grunder said. “We just weren’t on target tonight. They had some big swings but we gave them some easy opportunities and that’s not who we are.”
Wilton only led twice in the match, with the first occasion coming when the Beavers were up 7-6 in the second set. Just when Wilton appeared to find momentum and rhythm, Alex Wiese and the Regina hitters stepped up and sparked a 10-3 run to take a 16-10 lead. Wiese, a junior, finished with a match-high 14 kills for the Regals.
But after years of seeing her team’s competitive spirit in the practice gym, Grunder knew it wasn’t in the players’ DNA to go away quietly, even after Regina opened up a 6-0 lead to start the third set.
“They are fighters, they are competitors,” Grunder said of her team. “That’s something we pride ourselves on.”
Juniors Aubrey Putman and Emily Lange combined for a block for Wilton’s first point of the set, which helped Putman find her rhythm for the first time all match. The junior rattled off two quick kills, and the Beavers eventually rallied to a 10-10 draw. The teams played to an 18-18 draw before Regina finished the match on a 7-1 run to end Wilton’s season.
The loss also ends a run for a Wilton team that compiled a 66-12 record over the last two seasons, as the Beavers lose four seniors who were all starters. Although the season didn’t end the way Grunder or the Beavers imagined, falling one match short of state for the second year in a row, she insists she couldn’t be any more proud of her “volleyball family.”
“They left a legacy on our program,” Grunder said. “They achieved so much and have taken our program so far. I told them we’re proud of the season they had and the team they are."