Whenever IWU and Marian get together, regardless of sport, it is always a hard-fought, entertaining affair, and volleyball is no exception.
And whenever Marian is across the net from the Wildcats, it always brings out their best.
Behind an incredible defensive effort, particularly from Ana Collar and Havyn Gates, combined with a plethora of offensive production up and down the lineup, the Wildcats won their 11th Crossroads League Tournament Championship in the last 15 seasons in a three-set sweep of the defending NAIA National Champions (25-18, 25-18, 26-24).
Despite having to quarantine over most of the final third of their schedule, the Wildcats came back in early November with a renewed focus and purpose, and their Crossroads League Tournament Championship came as a result of one of their best performances of the 2020 season.
“It was so awesome to see them come together today like they did,” IWU Head Coach Candace Moats said. “When we went into quarantine, we were really getting to a peak, and then we kind of lost ourselves a little bit in the quarantine, but the girls fought to come back and hit that peak again.”
Against a lethal Marian offense, particularly reigning Crossroads League Player of the Year Skyler Van Note, the Wildcats held the Knights to a .123 hitting percentage, one of their lowest offensive outputs of the year. IWU, as a team, combined for 74 digs, and only allowed one player, Van Note, to record double-digit terminations.
“I thought that was the best defense I’ve seen them play,” Moats said. “Marian is phenomenal with their short game, and they just know how to do tips. But we stopped that and took that out, and they didn’t know what to do.”
While every Wildcat on the floor played a role, it was libero Havyn Gates who stole the show defensively, collecting a team-high 25 digs. The sophomore was all over the floor on Saturday, covering the corners well, diving after loose balls, and frustrating Marian’s attackers.
Gates, who has played with many players on the Marian roster, including Van Note, always brings her A-game against Marian, and her steady play kept the Wildcats engaged, playing a key role in the victory.
“We really knew who their money hitters were, and so just stuck with them and let some other people fly by us,” Gates said. “I’ve played with a lot of them, so I do know how they hit, so for me, it was just having those memories of what their trick shots are. We watched a ton of film, [so] we were ready for everything.”
“Havyn is amazing. She is just amazing,” Moats added. “She is so savvy in her defense. She gets mad when she gets 50 digs, and she misses one. She has that grit in her. She’s a phenomenal player for us.”
Offensively, five Wildcats recorded at least seven kills. Collar, who recorded 23 digs while playing in both the front and back row, led the team with 12 kills.
“I’m super fortunate to play front row and back row — you don’t get that all the time,” Collar said. “It’s a totally different game of volleyball, so being able to get the opportunity to do that — I love it. It’s a great time.”
Senior Marci Miller, who led several IWU rallies throughout the match, finished with 10. Rachel Klitzing added 9, while Allison Sparrow and Martina Demarchi each posted seven terminations.
Three IWU errors to start the match led to an early 3-0 lead in the first set for Marian, but the Wildcats quickly and efficiently found their rhythm, controlling the match for the rest of the afternoon. IWU battled back to cut Marian’s lead to 7-6, before a 4-0 run, which included three kills from Klitzing, gave the Wildcats an advantage they would not relinquish.
A 5-0 surge later in the set put the Wildcats up 16-11, and Miller helped IWU close it out, collecting four kills on four of the Wildcats’ final seven points.
The two longtime rivals battled toe-to-toe in the early stages of the second set, before Marian used a 5-0 run to go up 12-8. With momentum seemingly about to slip away, Moats called a much-needed timeout, allowing the girls to regroup and make adjustments.
That timeout changed the course of the set, as the Wildcats regained control with authority.
“We honestly just [told ourselves] to stick to the gameplan,” Gates said. “We just told ourselves to put the ball in play and play our game.”
IWU completely shut down Marian the rest of the way, ending the set on a 17-6 run. Only three of Marian’s final six points came via their offense.
The third set was one of multiple runs. After IWU took an early 9-8 lead, the Knights racked up three straight points to go up 11-9. The Wildcats answered with a 5-0 run to regain the lead at 14-11, before Marian came back with a 5-0 surge of their own to go back up 16-14.
This pattern continued throughout the final set, as neither team gained any sort of consistent advantage.
Van Note did everything in her power to force a fourth set, recording four kills in five points to give Marian a 24-22 lead, but the Wildcats never lost their edge, collecting four straight points to secure the sweep and the Crossroads League Tournament championship.
“We just had that championship mentality,” Collar said. “These girls are a special group. We always talk about when Christ is center in everything we do, we really do well together. When you have that mentality, you don’t think about yourself, you think about the girl next to you. We just stuck together.”
With the win, IWU will receive an automatic bid to the NAIA National Championship Tournament, which will take place in the spring.