KEOSAUQUA — In 11 matches this season, only two teams have been able to win games against the 10-1 Van Buren volleyball team.
West Burlington won a pair of games in handing the Warriors its only loss at the season-opening WACO Tournament, a loss Van Buren avenged last week with a 25-20, 25-22, 25-19 sweep of the Falcons. On Thursday, the Cardinal Comets took its second game of the season off the Warriors forcing Van Buren into a four-game Southeast Iowa Superconference south division battle on Tuesday.
Selena Sayre led the Warriors to a hard-fought victory over the Comets, recording 21 of Van Buren's 46 kills in a 25-10, 18-25, 25-18, 25-19 victory. Sayre and Logan Schmidt both recorded six aces as the Warriors put the match away scoring nine of the final 10 points after an 11-1 run by Cardinal erased a 15-7 deficit in the fourth set.
"Cardinal is playing with their hearts right now. They're in it to win it," Sayre said. "They're playing hard, they have their defense and they're playing for their head coach. Like Coach Z (Van Buren head coach Matt Zeitler) said, they're playing for Coach Harter."
Jerald Harter, Cardinal's head volleyball coach and longtime friend of Zeitler, is currently in Houston continuing to receive treatment to fight off squamous cell cancer of the throat. Cardinal lost all three of its matches at the Coon Rapids-Bayard tournament on Saturday, the first time this season that the Comets did not have Harter with them in the gymnasium.
The Comets (5-5, 1-1) lost to CAM, 21-9, 21-5; fell to Panorama, 21-15, 21-11, and lost to AHSTW, 21-13, 21-12.
Maddie Cloke had five kills to lead the Comets, while Maddy Langford had eight assists. Rachel Lewman came up with 19 digs and was 11-of-12 serving with three aces.
"I think the conference matches are going to be the hardest ones to play without him. It's hard not having him here," said Katie Orwig, who will be the acting volleyball coach for the Comets this season. "The girls do feed off of him a lot. It's definitely different, but I'm definitely proud of how our girls responded. We played good volleyball and there's not much more you can ask from your team than that."
Cardinal wasn't the only team on Tuesday thinking about Harter. Prior to the first serve, Zeitler informed the crowd at Van Buren High School of ways to help Cardinal's head coach while wearing a #Harterstrong shirt throughout the match.
"Jerald's not going to be back for a while, but I know he's fighting every day," Zeitler said. "Some of the weird parts of life that sometimes aren't the best parts. I hope he gets better so he can come back and I can keep kicking his butt."
The Comets responded on Tuesday after a seven-point service run by Schmidt in the opening game opened the door to a 15-point Warrior runaway. Cardinal jumped out to an early lead in the second game and held on throughout the set, evening the match at a set apiece with a seven-point win capped by a final hit out of bounds by Van Buren at the net.
"Cardinal played really hard, but we had about 40 errors where we just hit the ball out of bounds," Zeitler said. "Cardinal is definitely well improved. They're going to give a great run against a lot of teams. They gave us everything we could handle."
Schmidt and Sayre both shared in decisive service runs throughout the match. Sayre scored on seven of her 15 successful serves during the match in what proved to be the third set's decisive run as the Warriors again opened an early lead and held on to win by seven in the pivotal game of the match.
Just when it appeared the Warriors would cruise in the fourth, the Comets came alive. Ashlee Strong record eight-straight service points on the way to leading Cardinal, serving 12-13 in the match, as the Comets took an 18-16 lead in the fourth set forcing Zeitler to use his final timeout.
"I called the first timeout when we were up by eight and told them to finish it," Zeitler said. "The next thing I know, we're behind. That's how volleyball is. It's a game of rallies, ups and downs that you've got to find a way to win in the end."
Schmidt went on her second run of seven-straight service points as Van Buren rallied to regain the lead for good. Sayre finally brought the curtain down on Van Buren's 10th win, pounding her 21st kill past the diving Comet defenders.
"We played together at points, but there were times when we weren't talking with each other out there on the court," Sayre said. "We've got to communicate better. The message going into that final timeout was that we had to keep pushing. We had to want it more than Cardinal."
Van Buren (10-1, 2-0) will be back in SEISC south division action Thursday against Central Lee, potentially taking the court for the first time as a ranked team with the IGHSAU rankings slated to come out earlier in the day. Cardinal, meanwhile, will look to snap a four-match losing streak at home tonight against WACO.
Scott Jackson can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @CourierScott.