CLINTON -- This is what high school athletics is all about. At least that’s what Clinton volleyball co-coach Mark Massey believes.
Clinton High School closes the regular season at 7 tonight. With Senior Night serving as a backdrop at W.J. Yourd Gymnasium, the River Queens (20-8) play host to Bettendorf with the chance of claiming a share of the Mississippi Athletic Conference title.
“It’s a challenge, and that’s why everybody gets into athletics and team sports, to measure themselves against the best out there,” Massey said.
It’s a rematch of last year’s regional championship, when the Bulldogs won a hard-fought, five-set match that served as a springboard to winning the Class 5A state title.
Almost everybody from that teams is back, another future Division I player has come aboard and Bettendorf has been nearly impossible to beat this fall.
“You enjoy the fact that our league and eastern Iowa always affords you the chance to measure against the best out there,” Massey said. “I think the girls are excited for the opportunity. They certainly are respectful of Bettendorf and know anything less than our best won’t get it done.”
Bettendorf already has clinched a share of the MAC crown, and the Bulldogs enter the match with a 31-2 record and the No. 2 ranking in the state Class 5A ratings. They had been No. 1 all year until dropping a 25-12, 25-22 match 10 days ago to then-No. 2 Ankeny in the finals of the Bettendorf Invitational.
“Based on what I’ve seen, they come at you with more attackers at more positions than anyone in the state,” Massey said. “They serve pretty well, they’re excellent passers, they block well. They’re perhaps one of the more experienced teams to ever play in the state.”
Bettendorf has a pair of returning all-state players headed to play Division I volleyball -- second-team outside hitter Caitlin Wernentin (UNLV) and honorable mention pick Anna Willey (Liberty) -- but also got a major addition this year when Georgia recruit Devan Porter moved in. Porter, a 6-foot senior, leads the Bulldogs in kills (3.11 a game) and is second in blocks (0.67) and digs (2.39). Wernentin is right behind at 2.66 kills, while Willey averages 2.12 kills, 0.6 blocks and a team-high 5.55 assists a game.
Clinton is led by its own second-team all-state player -- senior Monique Harris, the school’s all-time leader in assists and aces. She comes in averaging 8.27 assists a game, 3.42 digs, 0.87 aces and 0.45 blocks. Fellow senior Erin Wenzel leads the way in kills (4.94 a game).
“The big thing in modern volleyball is it’s an attacking game,” Massey said. “You’ve got to be able to block and dig and maybe get them out of system. We feel we can be a very good blocking team. The key thing is to identify who is going to get the set and where it’s going to go.”
The River Queens have seen them a couple of times in person. They were in opposite pools and didn’t square off at the Bettendorf tournament, but the Bulldogs defeated the River Queens 21-11, 21-16 on Sept. 14 at the North Scott Invitational.
The Queens aren’t conceding anything in the rematch, though. They have several factors going their way.
They’re coming off their best match of the year -- a five-set win last Tuesday against eighth-ranked Pleasant Valley in which they battled back from an 0-2 deficit.
Recent history is on their side. A year ago, they also lost to Bettendorf at North Scott but won the conference matchup later in the year at Bettendorf before dropping the regional final match to the Bulldogs at Davenport West. Massey’s teams have a pretty good record against teams that beat them earlier in the season.
“We’re probably playing for more than (in) the first week of the year,” Massey said.
“One of the big things -- I don’t know if coaches directly teach it or emphasize it -- is competitiveness and ability to get things done in big moments. We’ve got a lot of trust in our kids to get it done in big moments. Erin has been up here three years, Mo for four. It’s never guaranteed, but we are pretty confident to trust those kids to make adjustments. We talk of the concept to fix it.”
It’s also Senior Night for Harris, Wenzel, Hannah Dehner (fourth on the team in blocks and kills), Shannon Shovlain (defensive specialist), Jordan Nelson (third in aces) and Gabby Haan (defensive and serving specialist). Although they will play again at Yourd in the regional tournament, this is their night to shine.
“All six of these would talk about each other in pretty positive terms; that’s what you want,” Massey said.
He speaks of them that way, too.
“Monique is capable of filling up the box score like no other,” he said. “Erin is a multi-sport athlete with a strong competitive spirit. She has really stepped up her game and become the primary outside hitter. Hannah is one of the top student-athletes at Clinton. It says a lot when she says AP Calculus is her favorite course. Jordan has been part of the state championship tennis team, and she’s used that skill of reading the court and being clever as a server. Shannon is another member of the state championship tennis team, a defensive specialist for us, a great teammate and great kid in terms of getting along with everyone. Gabby is the third member of the state championship tennis team and another one who plays really good back-row defense for us and has a serve that has helped us at some critical moments.”
Senior Night could be an intangible favoring Clinton.
“It is an emotional evening at times, but we talk about compartmentalizing it,” Massey said. “You’re sad for Senior Night because you have great memories. It gives you focus and reason to play well, too.”
There’s also no doubt the Queens remember how tough it was to come up short in the regional final last year.
“It might (serve as motivation) for some of the kids; if it does, that’s fine,” Massey said. “I don’t focus on so-called payback. If an athlete or coach starts doing that, I think they are looking for outside motivation. I feel that needs to come from within, to strive to do your best all the time.”
He and his players know it will take their best.
“We certainly know it will be a challenge,” he said. “We just want to play our best and give ourselves every opportunity and chance. The good thing about volleyball is it’s not who puts down the first points but who closes the deal.”
If they can close this one, the River Queens will own a share of the conference title.
Iowa playoffs begin
CLINTON -- The Bettendorf-Clinton match isn’t the only game in town tonight.
Postseason play begins today for Iowa Class 1A and 2A schools, and four area schools are in action, with two of them facing each other.
Easton Valley comes to Clinton to take on Prince of Peace in a Class 1A Region 7 first-round match at 7 p.m. at Central Catholic Auditorium. The other area matchups -- also with 7 p.m. starts -- have Calamus-Wheatland playing host to Rivermont Collegiate in 1A Region 7 and Bellevue hitting the road to take on Cascade in Class 2A Region 7.