By Kurt Ritzman
Assistant Sports Editor
When the seven seniors on the Marquette Catholic volleyball team step on to the court at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena to play in the Class 1A state tournament Thursday night it will be the realization of a long-term goal.
Perhaps more important than an individual goal, it’s been a team goal, something each player wanted to help the others achieve.
“Before every game, we always say, ‘I will not fail you’ to our teammates,” Lauren Swain said.
“We’ve come together as a team — as a whole — a lot more,” Kelli Herrig said. “That’s helped us a lot. We know everyone has each other’s back.”
The Mohawks (29-5) were tantalizingly close last year before ultimately falling in five games to Janesville, one match short of the state tournament. This year, Marquette had to overcome losing the first game to Belle Plaine last week before winning the next three to clinch a state tournament berth.
“We’re one year more experienced,” Kelsey Tebbe said. “Last year we lost in that fifth game where we were nervous. I think we’re over that this year. It showed against Belle Plaine. We lost the first game, then came back and won the next three.”
The Mohawks, ranked eighth, faces No. 2 Fort Madison Holy Trinity Catholic (43-4) in the first round, and keeping their nerves down will be key in that match.
“They’re going to get good hits,” Herrig said. “Every team is going to have their good hits. Even if they win a game, we can’t be like, ‘Oh, we don’t have this.’ We know that we can come back and do it. When we played in substate, we were like, ‘OK. They just won their game. Now we have to come back and show them what we’ve got.’”
The Mohawks will be in a role they’re not too familiar with — the underdog.
“I definitely like it because I think people look at us and underestimate us,” Herrig said. “We’re being overlooked, I think, and that’s to our advantage.”
Marquette has shown what happens when it goes overlooked. The unranked softball team was 16-16 before it won four playoff games to reach the state tournament and ultimately placed fifth last summer. In 2011, an unranked girls basketball team made the state semifinals.
“Our school has proven in the past that being the underdog doesn’t mean anything,” Olivia Jackson said. “I don’t think that will have any affect on us. It might just push us harder to win.”
It also takes the pressure off the Mohawks, who were the highest ranked team in their playoff bracket.
“There’s more pressure when you know you’re supposed to win,” Erica Sieverding said. “Now since we’re the underdogs, we can just relax and play.”
Marquette has to play a team lead by 6-foot, 3-inch sophomore Mikaela Foecke, who led Class 1A and was second in the state with 583 kills with a kill efficiency of .583.
“We cannot go in thinking, ‘Oh, they have a 6-3 girl,’” Danielle Bender said. “You have to play your game. If you go in thinking about a 6-foot-3 girl right in front of you, you’re going to get blocked and stuffed in your face, because that’s what in your head. You have to go in knowing how good you are and take it to them.”
But while Foecke has more kills than her next three teammates combined, Marquette has four hitters with between 100 and 210 kills. A fifth hitter has 98 kills.
“They have a really tall middle,” Tebbe said. “I think we have the advantage because we have five other people on the court who can hit the ball. They have one that can kill the ball.”
They said the focus has to be more on what they do than what Trinity and Foecke do.
“I think if we get our offense going, no team will be able to stop us,” Tebbe said.
“Especially a team with one girl,” Sieverding said, picking up where Tebbe left off. “We have five other weapons. I don’t think one girl can stop us if we play how we know we can.”
That doesn’t mean the Mohawks aren’t cognizant of her. Bender said it was important to get touches on her attacks, while Jacquel Frett added they would need to go after every ball.
“We’ve been up against tall girls before,” Jackson said. “I think a tough mindset can outweigh any physical talent that she has. If we go in with a good mindset and play our game, I think we’ll be fine.”
Tebbe said: “I’m confident in every hitter we have that they’ll just go around her. She’s not really intimidating any of us.”
The girls admitted that concentrating on their schoolwork hasn’t been easy since they knew they would be playing in the state tournament.
“We have not been able to focus,” Herrig said. “Our teachers can definitely tell. We’re all so excited and all of our fans are so excited.”
Marquette has put in a lot of hard work to get where it is, even ending Tuesday’s practice with some extra conditioning work.
“We’ve been practicing really hard this past week,” Frett said. “We just have to push now.”
But it all comes down to Thursday at approximately 7:30 whether the volleyball careers of these seven end or if they get to play in state semifinals Friday and a state title match Saturday.
“I think our main goal is to be able to leave the court and say we did our best,” Bender said.
“We’re going out and we’re going to leave everything on the floor,” Tebbe said. “It’s the last tournament that we’re going to play in. I think if we play our hearts out, it will be ours to win.”