While Benton and Union volleyball may not have faced each other on Saturday in Independence, the two programs each found plenty of competition in their first tournament of the season.
“It was a little bit of a stacked pool,” Benton coach Mike Embretson said with a slight chuckle. “Janesville and West Delaware are always good competition.”
The Bobcats opened their morning with a 2-0 win over Alburnett, led by six kills from sophomore outside hitter Piper Nelson. Embretson praised his team’s passing and setting in the 21-8, 21-12, noting how well Benton ran its sets throughout the match. Senior Grace Embretson had 10 assists, while she and senior Janelle Morris each had three digs.
“Piper is definitely going to be a force for us this season,” Embretson said. “When she becomes more consistent, she’ll be a really good player. We have more guns this season than in the past. Addie Phillips and Grace give us more hitting to go to this year.”
3A second-ranked West Delaware proved too quick to handle in a 21-11, 21-10 win for the Hawks. Benton found itself stuck in a rotation after going point-for-point with West Delaware for 10 points. Nelson again had six kills, Grace Embretson four assists and seven digs.
“West Delaware is a good quality team we need to see at the beginning of the season,” Embretson said. “We need to know where we’re at.”
Benton needed a win of 1A 15th-ranked Janesville to advance to tournament play. The Wildcats did not make that simple as they took the first set 21-14. Sensing their day was in jeopardy of ending, the Bobcats battled back in the second set and kept the score close. A Nelson kill put Benton up 12-11 and prompted a Janesville timeout. The Wildcat regained their slim lead and held on for a 21-19 win to end the Bobcat’s day 1-2.
“We fought to the end of that second set but just didn’t have enough gas,” Embretson said. “It’s huge seeing them not give up. That fight will win a lot of matches for them.
Nelson had seven kills in the match, and junior libero Olivia Janss finished with nine digs. Grace Embretson totaled six kills, 11 assists and six digs.
Union competed on the opposite court, starting off with new NICL conference rival Oelwein. The Knights made swift work of the Huskies in a 21-7, 21-12 win while also getting their bench players involved in the second set. Junior Jaidyn Bush had 18 assists to lead a balanced attack from senior Laura Rempe, junior Aubrey Gates and sophomore Gracie Klima with five kills each. Senior libero Bailey Foulk had five digs. Senior Belle Olson 19 for 20 on serves with four aces and four digs.
“We saw great connection between Jaidyn and Aubrey,” Union coach Brian Jesse said. “Belle served well all day. Bailey is doing a good job of transitioning into a new defensive assignment.”
Union’s success continued with a three-set win over 2A 15th-ranked Starmont. Down as much as 12-7, the Knight rallied back in the first set to squeak out a 21-19 set. The Stars came back to win the second set 21-18. Union was far from through as they opened the third set on a 6-1 run. Starmont went on a 4-0 run of their own before the Knights pulled away a second and final time in their decisive win. Gates totalled 13 kills and four digs. Bush had 24 assists and Foulk 14 digs.
“We played a pretty good game defensively against Starmont,” Jesse said. “We’ve got the tools for a good team but still have plenty of work to put everything together. You can’t lose two All-State players, and 100 percent of your serve receive and think everything is going to fall right into place.”
Jesse’s words rang true as the Knights “fell flat” against host Independence in a 21-11, 21-6 loss. A three-way tie in the pool (2-1 records) was settled by sets won, leaving Union out of tournament play due to being defeated by the Mustangs in two sets. Gates had three kills and three digs.
“We have to learn to respond better when things don’t go our way,” Jesse said. “You have to bring consistent effort each time you step on the court. We see tough competition in our conference and tournaments. If we play flat, this is the result we’ll get.”
Union will travel to Jesup on Tuesday, Benton will travel to Vinton-Shellsburg on Thursday.