CEDAR RAPIDS — Over much of the past decade, the Wartburg volleyball program has showed the way in its conference.
With five Iowa Conference — now known as the American Rivers Conference — championships in six years, plus conference tournament titles in six of the last eight, the Knights have a target on their back wherever they go.
Graduation losses left Wartburg with just five upperclassmen this season and the early results showed some significant growing pains. After a 25-21, 25-23, 25-17 sweep of Coe on Wednesday night at Kohawk Arena, it appears that the young Knights are rounding into their traditional form.
“We’ve been such a young team and we showed that early in the season,” Wartburg Co-Coach Jennifer Walker said. “Now, we’re becoming more comfortable in our positions, more comfortable in our roles. … We have fantastic defense. Great digs tonight. That can be such a momentum changer. I think our team is maturing. We showed our youth at the beginning of the season and now we’re getting to be where we’re a little more of a veteran squad.”
After winning its first three matches, Wartburg (11-8, 4-1 American Rivers Conference) dropped eight of its next 12, which included a four-set struggle against conference-leader Dubuque. After handing Coe (15-6, 3-2) just its third loss in 11 matches, the Knights have now won four in a row.
“We just had to do a little bit of growing up and really making sure that our intensity in practice is keeping up,” said senior outside hitter Lizzy Blough, who led Wartburg with 16 kills. “And having that carry through to our games.”
Setter Mallory Erbes led Wartburg with 31 assists, while freshman right-side hitter Jayme Willemssen — a Waverly-Shell Rock alum — posted a season-high 12 kills. Sophomore Katie Foster chipped in 15 digs, while Erbes and sophomore setter Sydney Rottinghaus each had 14.
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Former North Cedar prep Darby Hawtrey led Coe with 12 kills. The Wartburg front line limited Coe senior outside hitter Lindsey Koch, who entered the game with a team-high 224 kills, to just three.
“We really knew she was a good hitter, so we just tried calling out where she was and where she was coming in at on the net to stay on her,” said Wartburg sophomore middle blocker Kylie Bildstein, who prepped at Dyersville Beckman. “We always wanted to have at least one person on her.”
Blough — a Dike-New Hartford graduate — and Erbes helped Wartburg reach each of the last three NCAA Division III national tournaments, where the Knights twice advanced to the second round. The senior duo will be vital to any postseason success this year.
“We’re getting a lot of momentum now,” Blough said. “We’re starting to peak at a really good time of the year.”
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