UNDERWOOD, Iowa — Nobody can quite pinpoint the exact moment the transformation occurred.
But the Underwood volleyball team has gone from a muddling 9-6 squad to a 23-8 bunch that’s now playing fast, swinging hard and fearing no one.
The state No. 14 Eagles needed just 70 minutes Tuesday to dispatch Tri-Center 25-19, 25-17, 25-15 in a Class 2-A regional quarterfinal at Underwood High School.
A year ago, Underwood finished a 14-14 season with a first-round regional loss to Tri- Center.
“That was something that we really tried to improve on after last season,” Underwood coach Paula Carman said. “We came out and we did good things and we had great players. But we weren’t competitive. We didn’t have that edge.”
The Eagles, who are also rated seventh in western Iowa by The World-Herald, have it now. They advanced to Friday’s 7 p.m. regional semifinal at Council Bluffs St. Albert against state No. 5 and WI No. 2 St. Albert (26-10), which swept Missouri Valley.
“We just knew that we had to bring it together,” said 5-foot-5 junior Regan Landen, who had six kills, two blocks and an ace. “We worked hard in practices and we came together and we just figured out what we had to do to push through.”
Western Iowa No. 8 Tri-Center, which shared the Western Iowa Conference title with Underwood and Treynor, closed at 23-10 and was the victim of some bad fortune. Its second-leading hitter, senior Malory Christiansen, went down with a right knee injury on the fourth point of the match and didn’t return. She has dealt with injuries to that knee previously in her career.
After the injury, Underwood scored six of the next seven points to lead 10-1, and wasn’t seriously threatened in closing out the opening set.
“It impacts girls. It would impact anybody,” Tri-Center coach Brian Wedemeyer said of the injury. “It just kind of kills the psyche of the team a little bit when you know you’re losing one of your two guns and they’re not there.
“I don’t think they gave up. I thought they played hard, but it’s just kind of like a hollow feeling.”
Tri-Center did get out to a 7-3 lead in the second set after Sammy Andersen’s ace. The Trojans trailed 14-13 when Underwood freshman Maddy Powell stepped to the service line. She had three aces and Regan Landen added two kills in an eight-point run that stretched the lead to 22-13. Allison Waters closed out the second set with a kill.
In the third set, Underwood led 8-1 before a Tri-Center surge got it within 13-10. But the Eagles scored eight of the next 10 points, the final one on a solo block by the diminutive Landen. An errant Trojan attack closed out the match and gave Underwood three wins in their four meetings this season.
The 5-9 Powell is the lone player on Underwood’s roster who stands taller than 5-7. Since the Eagles can’t generate overwhelming power, it puts a premium on keeping the ball in play and hitting the defense from a number of different angles. Right now, they’re executing that strategy well.
“They’re playing well at the right time,” Wedemeyer said. “I was hoping with the (12-day) layoff they might be a little rusty.”
Chelsie Hardesty led the Eagles with nine kills. In addition to Regan Landen’s six kills, McKinsey Rodenburg had five, and Powell and Waters added four each.
Underwood is now able to look ahead to its match with St. Albert. The Eagles lost two games to one to the Saintes at the Atlantic tournament and were swept in their regular-season match.
But those meetings came more than six weeks ago. Underwood feels it’s a different team now.
“Communication is a big thing,” Landen said. “We’ve really stepped up on that the last couple games.”
Tri-Center (23-10) .................. 19 17 15
At Underwood (23-8) .................. 25 25 25
TC (kills-aces-blocks): Sammy Andersen 0-1-0, Morgan Sullivan 1-1-2, Malory Christiansen 0-0-0, Emily Baatz 1-0-0, Anna Spomer 4-0-1, Shelby Sullivan 5-3-0, Nicole Guarino 0-0-0, Kirsten Lehan 1-1-0, Keana Coffey 6-1-0.
U: Lea Crouse 0-1-0, Regan Landen 6-1-2, McKinsey Rodenburg 5-2-0, Rachel Landen 2-1-0, Madicen Fanslau 0-0-0, Allison Waters 4-0-0, Chelsie Hardesty 9-1-0, Cassie Cooper 0-0-0, Maddy Powell 4-3-0.
Set assists: TC, Baatz 13, Andersen 1, S. Sullivan. U, Crouse 13, Cooper 8, Rodenburg 4.
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