CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa After a year's absence, the Mount Vernon Mustangs are back in the state tournament.
Two of junior Hannah Whitley's 12 kills clinched sets two and three as 10th-ranked Mount Vernon swept the eighth-ranked West Liberty Comets, 25-20, 25-14, 25-23, in a Class 3A regional final Tuesday night at Cedar Rapids Jefferson.
"It's really a great opportunity," Whitley said."I'm proud of each and every one of my teammates. We did it together."
After falling in last year's regional final to Grundy Center, the Mustangs (27-10) are again chasing a state championship a status they achieved in 2010 (Class 3A) and 2009 (Class 2A).
"I believed that they could do it all year, (and) they believed that they could do it all year," Mount Vernon Coach Maggie Willems said."I honestly feel like we can play with anybody."
With the Mustangs down 12-7 in the opening set, Willems huddled the team in a timeout. Her squad responded with a 9-2 run to seize momentum they did not relinquish.
A block by junior Alli Platte of a thunderous kill attempt by West Liberty senior Ken Simon garnered Mount Vernon the first set.
"I was really happy, because we've been working really hard on our blocking this season because we're kind of shorter," Platte said.
In the second set, a tenuous 13-11 Mount Vernon advantage morphed into a 25-14 win following another Willems timeout.Her messages in the huddle?
"Quite honestly, nothing magic," Willems said."Just for them to relax, communicate, do the little things right."
Those little things were sparked by the calming influence of team leader and libero Marissa Stark, a senior who relishes one final shot at another state championship.
"I wouldn't have been able to do it without the blockers, our serves, everything was perfect, which made it possible for us to win this game," said Stark, who led the team with 25 digs."This is my team and I will love them forever."
The state tournament begins next Wednesday at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena. Mount Vernon is expected to play Davenport Assumption in its opener.
West Liberty ended its season with a 28-10 record.