OTTUMWA — Emma Weilbrenner may get to sleep in on Friday morning.
Ottumwa's senior setter would give anything to be waking up for one more early-morning volleyball practice.
Instead, a special 2020 season came to a sudden for the Ottumwa High School volleyball program on Thursday night in a rematch of an early-season CIML crossover signature win. Southeast Polk turned the tables on the Bulldogs in the postseason rematch, winning 17-25, 25-20, 25-21, 25-22 in the Class 5A, Region 4 semifinals at Evans Middle School Gymnasium.
The Rams (5-20) will face another CIML foe, second-ranked Ankeny, on Tuesday with a trip to the Iowa High School State Volleyball Tournament on the line. Ottumwa, playing at home in the postseason for the first time in nine years, ends the season with a final record of 14-14.
"It hasn't clicked yet that I won't be waking up for practice at 6 a.m. It just hasn't clicked that I won't be playing another match with these girls that I've played with since sixth grade," Weilbrenner said. "It's going to be weird to not play with them again."
Weilbrenner was one eight Ottumwa seniors that earned one last match at home thanks in large part to a 10-4 start to the season, highlighted by a 25-23, 23-25, 32-30, 25-18 Senior Night win over Southeast Polk on Sept. 8. The two teams ultimately finished the season splitting eight games in two matches with Ottumwa outscoring the Rams 193-188.
"I don't think there was much of a big difference between the two matches other than who came out on top each time," OHS senior Anne Guest said. "If there was a difference on our side, we might have had the thought that our season was on the line and we couldn't afford to make a mistake.
"Everything we've been working for this season had been leading up to this night. It might have gotten a little too much in our heads."
That pressure wasn't evident in the first game as Ottumwa had an even more decisive start on Thursday than the regular-season match six weeks earlier. The Bulldogs never trailed as Ashley Jones recorded four of Ottumwa's 12 kills in game one, helping OHS build a 23-13 lead.
"Their mentality in practice was lifted. Their intensity was lifted. The importance of what they were trying to accomplish in the last few days before we came into this match were intense," Ottumwa head volleyball coach Ruth Thomas said. "The girls were prepared to do what needed to be done in order to put our best foot forward and our best game on the court."
Ottumwa continued to lead early in the second game with Guest recording consecutive ace serves to help the Bulldogs open a quick 6-3 lead. The Rams battled back to catch Ottumwa at 8-8 and finally took their first lead of the match on an ace from Kaylee McAninch, one of two for the junior during a six-point service run that helped give Southeast Polk a 12-8 lead.
Chloe Schneckloth rallied the Bulldogs with a four-point service run, including a tying ace. Trailing 17-14, Ottumwa appeared to have blocked their way to a point as the ball got hung hung up briefly between the net and a Southeast Polk attacker.
Ottumwa players waited for a lift to be called, but the Rams were deemed to have played the ball legally. Jones then tried for a drop shot into the corner that was ruled just out, leading a five-point run for the Rams that them in control of the second game.
"It is pretty stressful when that happens," Guest said. "When it goes for us, we're excited to win the point. When it goes for Southeast Polk, it takes us down. It makes us mad when those calls go against us. All we can do is try to ignore it, don't worry about the call. We could have been in a better position and, even if a call went against us, we wouldn't have to worry about it as much."
Southeast Polk certainly played with more confidence and energy over the final two games, building a 16-8 advantage in the third game and a 14-8 lead in the fourth game. Ottumwa got back within striking distance each time, pulling within 21-20 in the third on a kill by Guest before being countered at the net by Addison Brunner.
Despite an amazing point won on a scramble by Kiley Heller, sending a ball from the outside of the back row all the way into the inside corner of the court on the Rams side of the net, Southeast Polk clinched the third game on an ace serve by Hannah Schwemm. Ottumwa rallied to tie the fourth game at 15-15 before three straight ace serves by Tiffany Harmison, including two that just caught the line on the back end of the court, put the Rams up 20-15.
Another close call on a kill by Alaina Brincks that was ruled to have gone off Ottumwa blockers gave Southeast Polk a 23-20 lead. Ally Paris followed with a kill, but swung into the net on the next point giving the Rams three match points. After a serve into the net gave Ottumwa a season-saving side out, Brincks finished off the Bulldogs tipping a ball off a Bulldog block for a winner that landed just in front of a diving Loren Egbert.
"The wins and losses dim over time. The relationships are the things that you develop with these ladies that stands the test of time," Thomas said. "It's like watching them grow up right in front of you. Every one of these girls are going to go out and make their mark on the world. I have no doubt about it."