ELDORA South Tama and South Hardin can't seem to play a volleyball match without making it an exciting, heart-pounding five-set match.
Tuesday's North Iowa Cedar League West Division match appeared it might be a quick, three-set domination by the visiting Lady Trojans. However, that was hardly the case as the hometown Tigers weren't throwing in the towel early.
When the dust cleared, the two NICL opponents played a five-set match for the fourth-consecutive time in the past three years. South Hardin won the match in 2011, but South Tama won both five-set matches a year ago, including a regional victory in Tama.
South Tama volleyball players and coaches celebrate winning the final point Tuesday night at South Hardin. STC beat the Tigers in five sets to remain unbeaten in conference matches this fall.
"That was a repeat of last year when we went five sets with them in the regional," STC head coach Michelle Bradley said. "I think we let down in the middle and (South Hardin) picked it up. We just let down. We just thought we could coast through the third set and you can't do that against a scrappy team like that and that proved it."
On Tuesday, the match would live up to the expectations set by the previous three contests. The Lady Trojans won the first two sets with relative ease (25-15, 25-21), but the home town Tigers weren't going down without a fight. South Hardin narrowly avoided a sweep in the third set (25-22) before dominating the fourth set (25-14).
The fifth set was neck-and-neck until South Tama used a 3-0 run to pull ahead 14-11. STC went on to win it 15-13. South Tama (7-3) won its fifth-consecutive match Tuesday when it defeated South Hardin (6-8) 25-15, 25-21, 22-25, 14-25, 15-13.
"It felt really good to win that," senior Paige Van Dyk said. "Now we know we have a game that we can come to and look at as a game that we played as a team."
Fellow senior Tori Appelgate agreed.
"It felt great," Appelgate said. "It was nice to come through with the win and become a better team. Everyone worked together tonight."
Both seniors were also thrilled to remain tied with Grundy Center atop the NICL West standings with an unbeaten conference record.
"It means everything," Appelgate said of Tuesday's win. "We are still tied for first in the conference and we're looking to stay there."
The excitement hit a fever pitch during the fifth set Tuesday night. South Hardin took a quick 2-0 lead, but STC tied it up with an Appelgate kill and a tip from senior Trisha Walz. South Hardin later led 6-4 before STC rallied again with kills from Van Dyk and Appelgate as it took a 10-7 lead.
South Hardin wasn't going out that easy. The Tigers tied the set at 11-11. Then STC scored the next three points as the Tigers hit out of bounds twice and Walz recorded a kill. The Tigers closed the gap to 14-13 before serving out of bounds, ending the set and match.
"We knew we really wanted it, so we had to go for everything," Van Dyk said. "That was all we had to and it paid off. It was exciting."
Before the final set, Bradley asked her team a few questions about how much they wanted to win the match.
"I asked them, 'Who's conditioned the best,' Bradley asked? "Are you guys conditioned the best? Are you physically ready for this? I don't think you're physically tired, so now what you have to do is take yourself mentally to that next level and don't let this happen. I saw a lot more energy in that set."
Her pep talk followed two sets in which her Lady Trojans struggled on the court and was unable to close out the conference road match. The third set was neck-and-neck battle with neither team leading by more than three points until late in the set. South Hardin's offense came alive in the set and it put the Lady Trojans away late. A 23-18 South Hardin lead became a 23-22 lead before South Hardin a kill from senior Ellen Swartz and a South Hardin ace ended the set.
South Hardin's offense remained hot in the fourth set, where its defense also came alive. South Hardin dominated the set as the Lady Trojans struggled mightily on both sides of the net. South Hardin closed the set on a 5-0 run as the Trojans committed unforced errors.
"Our energy just dropped," Bradley said. "I don't know if we need more conditioning or what, because I feel like we condition a lot, but maybe we need a bit more. We didn't seem that tired, but I think we were more mentally tired. I think we got down on ourselves mentally. There were times when we weren't jiving, speaking, calling out plays or anything on the court and we can't have that.
"Kudos to (South Hardin) for picking up their energy," she added. "Their setter is very good. We had a hard time reading her. They were nobody to lay down for."
Appelgate said the home crowd may have impacted the Lady Trojans.
"It was hard to stay fired up," Appelgate said. "(South Hardin) had their crowd behind them, so that kind of brought us down a bit."
South Tama's offensive attack and communication between players were nearly unstoppable during the first two sets. A 5-0 spurt broke a 10-10 tie and gave STC the advantage it needed to pull away during the opening set. Van Dyk had two kills and one tip during that 5-0 run. STC ran away with the set, closing it with a 15-5 run.
The second set was close early, but STC scored four-straight points to take an 11-7 lead. Walz had two aces and senior Taylor Muhlstein earned a kill during that stretch. South Tama maintained a margin of at least two points during the rest of the set. Kills by Appelgate and Holtz helped finish the set.
"We were just killing the ball," Bradley said. "We were just getting the ball up and down. There was no stopping us. We were also getting to the ball quicker.
"I'm just happy to escape with a win," she said. "It was not our best performance. We had moments of our best and then moments of 'oh my goodness.'"
Walz led the Lady Trojans with 18 kills, while fellow Van Dyk and Holtz added 11 and 9, respectively. Appelgate also recorded seven kills in the victory. Senior setter Madison Baack earned 27 assists in the match. South Tama served 11 aces, including three from Walz and two each from Holtz, Van Dyk and sophomore Belle Tyynismaa. Walz also recorded 27 digs in the match to lead South Tama.
The Lady Trojans were happy to leave South Hardin with a win Tuesday, but they know they must improve moving forward.
"We can definitely learn from this, because we should have beaten them in three," Van Dyk said. "We got down, but we knew we had to bring our spirits up and we could win it again."
Last Thursday, South Tama traveled to Ackley and swept the Cougars in three-straight sets. STC won 25-10, 25-16 and 25-21.
"We let down in that third set," Bradley said. "Last year it was the second set. This year we are at least kicking through the second and letting down in the third. We're just going to work on that in practice."
South Tama will play at the West Manchester Invitational on Saturday in Manchester. It will begin at 9 a.m. STC will host its first home match on Tuesday when it hosts West Marshall.