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Regional champs

—Photo by Paul DeCoursey The IOwa Central volleyball team celebrates after qualifying for the national tournament. The Tritons defeated Hawkeye in four sets.

The Iowa Central volleyball team crossed each one of the final 29 feet left standing between them and a trip to nationals here Tuesday night.

With a four-set win over Hawkeye, the third-ranked Tritons secured the Region XI-A Tournament title and a spot in the upcoming NJCAA Div. II National Championship.

Scores were 24-26, 25-17, 25-14 and 25-14.

After back-to-back heartbreaking losses one step from the national tournament, Iowa Central (19-3 overall) punched its ticket for the first time since 2017 and sixth in school history.

“These girls deserve this,” Iowa Central head coach Sara Horn said. “In sports, that doesn’t always matter. The team that deserves to win, doesn’t always win, but these girls did everything right, everything that we asked of them.”

Kealey Anderson, Haley Alharithy and Alesha Johnson were named to the all-tournament team, with Johnson being named the most outstanding player.

“It feels amazing,” Johnson said. “This team is one of the calmer teams. We have giant points, but when it gets to the nitty, gritty, we stay prepared. Calm, cool and collective; nobody gets mad at each other.”

Hawkeye (16-6) put the pressure on the Tritons early, overcoming a 14-4 deficit to take the first set. The RedTails relied on Haley Eckerman and a handful of others, scoring 10 consecutive points at one stretch with three aces.

“We could have folded after that first set,” Horn said. “But we talked about there being peaks and valleys throughout the match and you just have to stay in the moment. I really thought they did a great job of that.

“We work on different mind-training exercises, breathing exercises and visualization techniques to keep us in the moment.”

Hawkeye claimed an early 6-3 lead in the second set before Iowa Central battled back behind Molly McCauley. The former Algona standout had five kills in the set including three during a key stretch that saw the Tritons push their lead from 8-7 to 13-9.

An Angel Baylark block finished off the set and gave Iowa Central the momentum they needed.

“We knew we had a lot of adrenaline,” Johnson said. “We all just believed in each other and tried to pick each other up.”

A back-and-forth third set when in favor of the Tritons after Anderson reeled off two straight kills during a 12-6 rally. Katilyn Steffes put Iowa Central up 2-1 with a set-ending kill.

In the fourth, the Tritons controlled the tempo, sealing the deal with a 6-2 closing burst.

“This is such an amazing group,” Horn said. “We are excited to go to nationals, but we are also so excited to keep coaching them because of how special they are.”

Anderson finished with 16 kills, Steffes nine and McCauley eight. Anderson also had 19 digs, Steffes 16 and Baylyn Johnson 12 while Alesha Johnson finished with 44 assists. Baylark recorded five blocks, Haley Alharithy four and Anderson three.

Iowa Central has now captured six regional championships overall, with this being the second under Horn. They finished 10th in 2017 at nationals.

Kirkwood topped Des Moines Area in the Region XI-B final and will now play in a district championship to determine the national qualifier.

The NJCAA Div. II National Championship takes place April 13-15 in Cedar Rapids.

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