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Holy Trinity plays for Abby Denning to oust two-time defending state champion Notre Dame

Four.

That was the Holy Trinity Catholic High School volleyball team's magic number in Wednesday's 23-25, 25-23, 25-17, 25-21 victory over two-time defending state champion Notre Dame in a Class 1A regional final on the Don Gibbs Court at Burlington High School's Johannsen Gymnasium.

Holy Trinity (29-15) advances to play third seed Gladbrook-Reinbeck (32-9) in a Class 1A state quarterfinal match at 8 p.m. Tuesday at Xtream Arena in Coralville.

Notre Dame ends the season with a 31-14 record.

It was the Crusaders' fourth postseason match. It took the Crusaders four sets to dispose of the Nikes. Four was also the number Abby Denning wore in seventh and eighth grade for the Holy Trinity Junior High volleyball team. And it had been four years since Denning died in a tragic ATV accident at the tender age of 13.

Before Wednesday's match, the Holy Trinity volleyball team laid a jersey with the No. 4 on it in the center of their warmup area.

And when it was finally over, the Crusaders were piling on one another in that exact spot, a tribute to their fallen teammate and a celebration of a return trip to state after ousting their arch nemesis, who had ended their season each of the last two years.

And somewhere, the Crusaders knew Denning, who would have been a senior, was smiling down on them from start to finish.

"That is for senior Abby who died a couple years ago. She would have been a senior. She was a classmate and she would have been right there along with us if she was still here today," said Holy Trinity senior Kayla Box, who had the match of her life with 12 kills, 12 digs and five blocks. "She was a strong-spirited person. If she was here she would have won this game for us. She won it even though she isn't here physically right now."

"Abby is very special to us. We definitely had her with us today. We talk about it because her number was four. It's the fourth game of the postseason and we said we were going to win in four sets. That's her lucky number and we know she is with us," said Holy Trinity senior Brooke Mueller, who had five kills, 20 digs and two blocks to go along with a pair of aces. "I was close with her. I was in her class. There were people who were a lot closer to her than me, but it still hurts just as bad."

"Abby has a big role on our team. She's not here with us, but Abby fought every point when she was little just as hard as she could. We said in the locker room, let's play for her and play for ourselves. Play within," said junior Mary Kate Bendlage, who had 13 kills, 23 digs and two blocks. "Every point she was there cheering us on. She wasn't here , but we knew she was with us and she is very proud of us."

"I told them Senior Night was your night. Let's do it tonight. This is the fourth postseason game and I said we're going to win it in four. Wow, they did it tonight," Holy Trinity head coach Melissa Freesmeier said. "Abby was the fun one on this team. I coached them in eighth grade. Abby always came happy, always had a smile on her face. She's the backbone behind these kids. I know that's hard, but they've embraced her. I am just so happy with these seniors."

Holy Trinity players pile on the floor in celebration after a 3-1 victory over Notre Dame in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington. Holy Trinity advances to the state tournament next week.
Holy Trinity players pile on the floor in celebration after a 3-1 victory over Notre Dame in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington. Holy Trinity advances to the state tournament next week.

Holy Trinity battles back

Notre Dame won the opening set after trailing early.

Holy Trinity battled back for a 23-22 lead on a kill by Box.

But a kill by Aviana West, a spike by Abby Korschgen off a quick from Maddy Moesna and a kill down the line by Taryn Stephens gave the Nikes the opening set.

Just as they have done all season, the Crusaders fought back, closing out the second set on a block by Mueller and a kill by freshman Presley Myers.

"I asked them if they had it in them to come out and take three and four and they said yes,"Freesmeier said. "I never saw a doubt in their eyes and that was huge. All 14 players contributed tonight. It was a total team effort."

"When we ended up losing that second set, which was close, it went downward from there. They felt like they needed to press more and it just kind of got away from us," Notre Dame head coach Mike Davis said. "We didn't play our best and when you don't play your best, and they didn't skip a beat, it's tough to beat a team like that."

Notre Dame’s Taryn Stephens (9) hits against Holy Trinity's Kayla Box (3) and Brooke Mueller (23) in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington. Holy Trinity won the match, 3-1.
Notre Dame’s Taryn Stephens (9) hits against Holy Trinity's Kayla Box (3) and Brooke Mueller (23) in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington. Holy Trinity won the match, 3-1.

Carrying the momentum

With momentum in their corner, the Crusaders led most of the pivotal third set. The Crusaders scored four straight points off Mueller's serve. Four points by Bendlage and two more by Myers, coupled with numerous Notre Dame hitting errors, put the Nikes in a deep hole with their backs against the wall.

"My goal this game was to not let the ball touch the ground and also get the kills when we needed them," Mueller said. "Sometimes I don't think teams expect me to kill the ball because I definitely don't have the strongest swing on the team."

"I think that mostly we kept good energy, even with them coming back in set two. We kept good energy and tried our best," said Anna Bendlage, who put up 45 assists. "Knowing that we could do it because we did it the set before and just pushing hard. We wanted this more than anything."

"They were pressing. Normally we take care of the ball a lot better. We were just making silly errors. It was just compounding," Davis said. "They were kind of picking on our smaller blockers. They've got some good hitters. We needed to do a better job of keeping them out of system than we did tonight. We were setting them up and made a couple of those girls look like they were collegiate athletes."

Notre Dame’s Abby Korschgen (23) spikes the ball against Holy Trinity’s Mary Kate Bendlage (13) and Kayla Box (3) in a Class 1A regional final Wednesdayin Burlington. Holy Trinity won the match, 3-1.
Notre Dame’s Abby Korschgen (23) spikes the ball against Holy Trinity’s Mary Kate Bendlage (13) and Kayla Box (3) in a Class 1A regional final Wednesdayin Burlington. Holy Trinity won the match, 3-1.

Putting on the final touches

Notre Dame took an early 6-3 lead in the fourth set and had a 21-20 lead later. But three kills by Myers sandwiched around two more Nikes hitting errors ended the match and set off a wild celebration on the Crusaders' side of the court.

"It feels great, especially against a team we have struggled to beat the last two years," Box said.

"This is the best feeling in the world, honestly, right now. I couldn't be happier," Mueller said.

"I think tonight we had the mentality that we had nothing to lose," Mary Kate Bendlage said. "They are the two-time defending state champion and they are ranked way above is. I think with WACO you saw a lot more nerves and playing a little scared and timid at times. Tonight, everyone on the court gave it everything they had on every point. The point in the past was in the past and we let it go."

"It's amazing, especially when you play such a great team," Freesmeier said. "We came home the victor. Notre Dame is a great, great program and a great team. When we drew them the kids were like, 'Oh, man.' I was like, 'No. I want to play them. We have to play the best to be the best.' This one is going to get us ready for the next three over at the state tournament."

Notre Dame’s Gabby Deery (11), left, and other players are dejected after a 3-1 loss against Holy Trinity in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington.
Notre Dame’s Gabby Deery (11), left, and other players are dejected after a 3-1 loss against Holy Trinity in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington.

Saying so long to the seniors

The Notre Dame seniors -- Gabby Deery, Ava Parkins, Emily Stutsman, Maddy Mosena, Abby Korschgen and Breck McVey -- compiled a combined 88-27 record over the past three seasons. They won an SEI Superconference South Division crown, won a pair of Superconference Tournament titles, played in three regional finals, won two state championships and came within one match of making it to state three straight years.

Deery, the reigning Class 1A Player of the Year, had 26 kills on the night and finished her illustrious career with 1,516 kills.

"I'm proud of them. They've accomplished so much in the three years I've been with them. One game away from state and two state championships. You really can't complain about that too much. I'm just so proud of them," Davis said. "(Deery) is going to go on and do bigger and better things. Did she have a perfect game tonight? No. But if it wasn't for her we wouldn't have been here tonight anyway. Every one of those girls had a huge role in what we did."

Notre Dame players Lexi Korschgen (26) and Ava Parkins (14) hug as Abby Korschgen (23) and Emily Stutsman (16) are dejected after a 3-1 loss against Holy Trinity in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington.
Notre Dame players Lexi Korschgen (26) and Ava Parkins (14) hug as Abby Korschgen (23) and Emily Stutsman (16) are dejected after a 3-1 loss against Holy Trinity in a Class 1A regional final Wednesday in Burlington.

HOLY TRINITY

Kills — Presley Myers 14, Mary Kate Bendlage 13, Kayla Box 12, Brooke Mueller 5, Taegan Denning 2, Anna Bendlage 1

Assists — A.Bendlage 45

Serving — MK Bendlage 22-22 (1 ace), Mueller 15-15 (2 aces), A.Bendlage 11-12, Box 6-7, Alexa Dingman 1-2, Denning 12-14 (1 ace), Laura Mehmert 10-12, Teagan Snaadt 2-4

Blocks — Box 5, Myers 5, A.Bendlage 3, MK Bendlage 2, Mueller 2

Digs — MK Bendlage 23, Mueller 20, Snaadt 16, Box 12, Denning 10, Myers 10, A.Bendlage 4

NOTRE DAME

Kills — Gabby Deery 26, Abby Korschgen 11, Aviana West 8, Taryn Stephens 7

Assists — Maddy Mosena 51, Ava Parkins 3, Madelynn Knapp 1

Serving — Knapp 16-16, Emily Stutsman 14-15, Parkins 12-13, Deery 12-14, Stephens 11-13, Mosena 12-15

Blocks — Korschgen 4, West 3, Deery 2, Knapp 2, Mosena 1

Digs — Parkins 19, Knapp 18, Mosena 17, Stephens 16, Stutsman 12, West 5, Korschgen 4

Records — Holy Trinity 29-15, Notre Dame 31-14

Matt Levins is a sports reporter for the USA Today Network in Burlington, Iowa, who has covered local sports for 32 years at The Hawk Eye. Reach him at mlevins@thehawkeye.com.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Holy Trinity ousts two-time defensing Class 1A state champion Notre Dame