CLINTON — It was the perfect chance to unravel.
Already trailing two games to none, a Clinton celebration over an apparent point by Raven Jones turned to dismay when the point went to Pleasant Valley. Jones pleaded for the point, Clinton captains Hannah Dehner and Monique Harris made an appeal to referee Sergio Villarreal on the stand, and finally co-coach Mark Massey came out to question the call during a Clinton timeout.
Their pleas denied, the River Queens stepped back on the court with just a one-point lead, 19-18, and momentum in danger of turning back to the Spartans.
Before the Spartans served, Harris called out to her teammates.
“Just knowing that play didn’t determine the whole game, we needed to let it go,” she said she told her teammates.
Clinton did just that, rallying after losing the first two games 25-23 and 25-19 to knock off the eighth-ranked Spartans with three straight wins, 25-23, 25-18 and 16-14, on Tuesday night at W.J. Yourd Gymnasium. The win kept the River Queens (20-8, 7-1 MAC) in contention for the Mississippi Athletic Conference title while eliminating the Spartans (20-5, 6-2) from the championship picture. The Queens play host to defending state champion Bettendorf (31-2, 8-0) next Tuesday for the championship.
“These girls work hard, and it’s good to see them succeed and be so excited,” Clinton co-coach Aubree Tanzillo said. “This was huge. It’s a big confidence booster. We keep telling the girls if we have solid play we’re a tough team to beat.”
They proved that even in the games they lost. With both teams flying all over the court to force long, dramatic rallies, it easily was the best match of the year for the Queens.
“Overall, it was a great match,” Pleasant Valley coach Stacey Ruff said. “The disappointing part is how well the girls played in games one and two and not making sure they finished it.”
Instead, the Queens finished it, scoring three of the match’s final points, with kills by Erin Wenzel (27 kills) putting Clinton ahead 14-13 and 15-14, and sophomore Elle Tubbs (19 kills) delivering the clincher and triggering an on-court celebration
“Exuberation would be the word,” Tanzillo said, describing her feelings as Clinton scored the final point.
Another apt word would be relief since the Spartans appeared to reclaim the edge when back-to-back aces by Sydney Strawser, who finished with seven to go along with a team-high 25 kills, capped a three-point run and tied the fifth set at 13-13 after Clinton had run off three straight.
“We just had to stay focused and not let those two plays determine the whole match,” Harris said.
The entire comeback required that same determination.
“Down 2-0, it’s, ‘Oh, my God,’ “ Dehner said of her thoughts heading into Game 3. “I think the biggest thing was communication, energy and focus.”
“We just knew we could play our game, and if we did, we could beat them,” Jones said.
Harris (53 assists), who became Clinton’s all-time leader in assists (2,348) late in the fourth set or in the fifth, said “passion and fire” keyed the turnaround.
Much of that came from the team’s more unheralded players.
Jones recorded four blocks and 15 digs; Jordan Nelson also had 15 digs and served several key points; Dehner and McKenzie Petersen added key blocks and kills in the middle; and Shannon Shovlain recorded key kills.
“They stepped up,” Harris said. “They knew we needed them. We couldn’t do it without them.”
Jones recorded three blocks in the third game and Dehner two, including one that got Clinton a point back right away after the disputed call. Moments later, Clinton scored four straight points for a 24-19 lead when sophomore middle blocker Petersen joined Jones for a block and then capped the run with a kill.
“She did a fantastic job blocking for us,” Tanzillo said of Jones.
“I’ve just been practicing trying to get my block better,” said Jones, at 5-foot-7, Clinton’s shortest starter. “I had to block to keep us in the game.”
Pleasant Valley didn’t make it easy on Clinton, though. The Spartans scored four straight to pull within 24-23, an ace from Emma Whigham giving them their final point. But a PV error gave Clinton the winning point.
Clinton raced to a 5-0 lead in Game 4 on the strength of Nelson’s serving.
“When we got that lead, it helped a lot,” said Nelson, who had her lone ace during the stretch. The Queens managed just two aces, well below their average. “Our game plan was don’t serve to Waterman (Morgan Waterman, PV’s libero). She’s a really good passer. If we served to the corners that would work because then they were out of system.”
Clinton never lost the early lead, though Pleasant Valley made several attempts to get back in it. The Queens started to pull away with four straight points for a 23-15 lead, the last coming on a kill by Wenzel after Jones made consecutive digs, the second while still on her knees from the first.
Neither team could break free in the final game. Clinton scored the first two points, but the Spartans came back to pull even at 3 and go ahead 4-3. Clinton tied it at 4-4 and 5-5, then, after the Spartans scored two in a row, the Queens scored three straight for an 8-7 lead. But, once again, PV rallied, tying it at 8-8, 9-9 and 10-10 before three straight kills by Wenzel put Clinton on the verge of winning.
But Strawser led one final push with a kill and two aces to tie it at 13 before Clinton finally pulled it out.
“It was very exciting, and nerve-wracking at the same time,” Nelson said. “We just go in thinking we’re not going to lose.”
CLINTON 23-19-25-25-16, PLEASANT VALLEY 25-25-23-18-14
Kills — PV, Sydney Strawser 25, Emma Whigham 22, Emily Paul 9; Clinton, Erin Wenzel 27, Elle Tubbs 19. Assists — PV, Allie Carter 60, Morgan Waterman 3; Clinton, Monique Harris 53. Digs — PV, Waterman 33, Whigham 26, Strawser 21, Kayla Ruff 21; Clinton, Harris 40, Wenzel 29, Jordan Nelson 15, Raven Jones 15. Blocks — PV, Paul 2, Whigham 1, Strawser 1, Lana Lindstrom 1; Clinton, Jones 4, Wenzel 4, Hannah Dehner 2, Tubbs 2, McKenzie Petersen 2. Ace serves — PV, Strawser 7, Carter 2, Whigham 1; Clinton, Harris 1, Nelson 1.
Junior varsity — Pleasant Valley won 21-13, 21-18.
Pleasant Valley 25-25, Clinton 23-17
Clinton statistical leaders
Kills — Abby Mulholland 7, Kassidy VanHorn 3, Samantha McCue 2. Assists — Mulholland 8, Elley Housenga 1. Blocks — Jenna Stremlow 4, VanHorn 2, Housenga 1. Ace serves — Paiton Schultheis 2, McCue 2, Stremlow 1, Mulholland 1.