CLINTON — Erin Wenzel sat in the front row of bleachers in Yourd Gymnasium, staring ahead blankly as the fans filtered out. The tears had come and gone. Occasionally she got up to hug a teammate, friend or well-wisher, but then it was back to the bench.
She seemed determined to be the last one to leave. She didn't want her volleyball career at Clinton to end, not like this.
For the second year in a row, Wenzel and her Clinton High teammates were dealt a heartbreaking end to their season. But, this time she was a senior, and the loss came on her home court.
"It's really tough, thinking that this is the last volleyball game we'll play in here and how much we love the game and how hard we tried tonight, and it just really sucks," she said. "All the great bonds that we made over the years, it's hard to think it's over."
Cedar Rapids Kennedy rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win games 4 and 5 on Thursday night and hand the River Queens a 22-25, 25-20, 23-25, 25-20, 15-11 defeat in a Class 5A Region 6 semifinal match.
"They came on hard," Clinton senior Hannah Dehner said. "They wanted it just as much as we did, and in the end that's what counted."
The Cougars (20-14), who have won six in a row, move on to face eighth-ranked Dubuque Hempstead on Tuesday in the regional final that will determine the state tournament qualifier. Hempstead swept crosstown rival Dubuque Senior 25-12, 25-9, 25-9.
"I'm really proud of us," Kennedy senior outside hitter Jayden Gilson said. "We just kept our momentum and played more as a team. We worked together better and hustled after every ball."
Kennedy setter Anna Fluent said: "We really wanted this game real bad. We want to move on to state. We played really well and kept our composure through all five games and didn't get down, even when we were down (in points)."
Meanwhile, Clinton had difficulties most of the night.
"It was tough," senior setter Monique Harris said. "We just didn't stick together, and we didn't pull it out like we wanted to."
The pain wasn't only emotional for Harris, a second-team all-state player last year as a junior. An ankle injury suffered Saturday put her postseason in jeopardy. Unable to practice since last week, she gutted it out but barely resembled the player Clinton fans have watched the past four years.
"It's very frustrating," Harris said, noting that she thought she was playing at about 50 percent of normal. "I just felt I should provide my team more, and I just couldn't. I had to get over that and just play how I could play."
The injury prevented Harris from using her jump serve that resulted in the school record for aces. It also hampered her defensively in blocking and getting to balls, although she still led Clinton with 22 digs.
"I would say my quickness was gone. I'm not using that as an excuse at all," she said.
Dehner said, "It (playing defense) was a lot harder because Mo's the right side and we had to kind of shift over, so it left their angle open for their hitters.
"Mo still put up a fight. I'm happy she played. I wouldn't want this last senior game without her."
She certainly impressed her coach, though that was nothing knew.
"I had a lot of respect for Mo going in to tonight," co-coach Mark Massey said. "She hasn't practiced since last Thursday ... and if you asked coach (Aubree Tanzillo) or the kids last night ... I went home and told my wife, 'She can't go.'
"I don't know what percent, but if anyone wonders how good she is, they need to have watched a week or two weeks ago and then watched tonight and subtract the difference. It limited her serving and it limited our offense because she wasn't as mobile."
Even with their ailing setter, it appeared the River Queens (20-10) might get by when they scored four of the final five points to win the third set and go ahead 2-1.
A kill by Elle Tubbs tied the game at 21, then back-to-back blocks by fellow sophomore Mackenzie Petersen, one with Tubbs, the other with Harris, put Clinton within a point of the win. Kennedy staved off defeat for one more point on a kill by Paige Franck before Tubbs finished it with another of her nine kills.
But, Kennedy raced to a 4-0 lead in Game 4 — the final point coming on an ace by Madison Meier — and the Cougars maintained control most of the remainder of the match. Clinton fought back and took a brief lead, going up 8-6 on a Tubbs kill.
Then, Gilson took over on the left side.
"Our outside hitter, Jayden Gilson, was really on fire, so she kept us up and got a lot of kills," said Fluent, who was happy to keep setting up Gilson. "Then, when we mixed it up we caught them off guard because they were used to us setting to the outside."
Gilson recorded four consecutive kills to put the Cougars back in front. A kill by Petersen stopped the run and cut Clinton's deficit to 10-9, but Kennedy scored the next four points, alternating Clinton hitting errors with blocks by Niki Dean and Macy Anderson to go ahead 14-9.
Gilson recorded nine of her match-high 22 kills in Game 4.
"We started setting there (the left side) and realized there was no block," Gilson said. "There was a big block on the right side. It made sense to do that."
The Cougars carried the momentum for the rest of the match.
The Cougars lead grew to six at one point in Set 4, and Clinton never got closer than three after that as Kennedy forced the decisive fifth game.
The story was similar in the fifth game.
"I think we wanted it so bad that I knew we were going to take it, we were going to win," Fluent said.
Although Clinton scored first on a kill by Petersen, a kill by Brinley Milbrath, an ace by Kendal Meier, a Clinton hitting error and a Clinton violation gave the Cougars the next four points.
"It's really important because it's a short game," Gilson said of getting ahead quickly. "We knew we needed to win fast, and we really wanted it. We wanted it more than them."
Clinton cut the deficit to one three times — 5-4, 6-5 and 8-7 — but a back set by Fluent for a right-side kill by Anderson and a setter dump by Fluent stretched the lead to 10-7.
That was a little too much for Clinton to make up.
"We tried to battle back as much as possible, and we never gave up, but once you get down so much in a game to 15, it's really tough to get back up," Wenzel said.
The Queens made one last run, scoring three straight points on a Kennedy hitting error and two kills by Wenzel to pull within 12-11. Another kill from the right side by Anderson off a back from Fluent followed by a double block by Fluent and Milbrath put Kennedy at match point. The Cougars wasted no time finishing it with a hit that a lunging Shannon Shovlain couldn't get to before it hit the floor, setting off Clinton tears and a Kennedy celebration.
Even in the games it won, Clinton struggled.
Kennedy ran off six consecutive points to go ahead 9-4 in the first set. Clinton battled back, and the game had two ties and a lead change before the River Queens went ahead for good. A Wenzel kill put them ahead 13-12, then an ace by senior Jordan Nelson made it a two-point lead.
Moments later, Clinton used a 6-1 run to go ahead 21-15. Tubbs had a pair of kills in the run, senior Hannah Dehner had another, and Dehner and Raven Jones combined on a block for another point.
Kennedy got within one once more, at 22-21 on a block by Milbrath, before Clinton closed with a 3-1 run that included kills by Wenzel and Petersen.
The Queens just never could get a sustained stretch with the momentum, though. Kennedy used a five-point run in Game 2 after the teams were tied at 6. Clinton pulled within two twice — at 14-12 on a Harris ace and 15-13 on a kill by Dehner — before Kennedy pulled away.
"I think two was a winnable game," Massey said. "They were able to shorten any of our runs, and we'd been able to get runs on pretty much everybody except Bettendorf all year."
And just as it did last year in a five-set loss regional loss to Bettendorf, Clinton's season ended in another five-setter.
"It's definitely hard (to go out with a loss), but we had a great season, so it's like, we watched a video this morning and it said, yeah, maybe on the scoreboard we lost, but we're never defeated as long as our hearts are in the game," Dehner said."
CEDAR RAPIDS KENNEDY 22-25-23-25-15, CLINTON 25-20-25-20-11
Kills — Kennedy, Jayden Gilson 22, Brinley Milbrath 13, Macy Anderson 8, Paige Franck 6; Clinton, Erin Wenzel 21, Elle Tubbs 9. Assists — Kennedy, Anna Fluent 57; Clinton, Monique Harris 39. Digs — Clinton, Harris 22, Raven Jones 22, Shannon Shovlain 19, Wenzel 18. Blocks — Kennedy, Niki Dean 3 assists, 2 solos; Anderson 5 assists; Milbrath 1 assist, 2 solos; Clinton, McKenzie Petersen 5. Ace serves — Kennedy, Rylee Mitchell 4, Kendal Meier 2; Clinton, Jordan Nelson 4, Harris 2, Gabby Haan 2.