Knights end decorated season as State Semifinalists
Cap off 2023 by taking down No. 2 Cherokee before falling to state champs Western Christian
CORALVILLE – The top-ranked Knights volleyball team capped off a decorated season in Coralville last week by advancing for the fifth time in school history to the semifinal round of the 3A Iowa high school state volleyball tournament where they deftly took down No. 2 seed Cherokee Washington before falling to perennial powerhouse – and eventual 2023 state champs – Western Christian.
“[We had an] outstanding season [that] included a conference championship (our second), three tournament championships, and a return trip to state,” Union head coach Brian Jesse told the Telegraph last week in an email following his team’s state tournament appearance.
Competing in what is considered by many Iowa sports reporters to be one of the toughest volleyball conferences in the state – the North Iowa Cedar League – the Knights proved week after week throughout the regular season this year that they belonged at the top of the heap.
The team earned a return trip to the state tournament – the program’s 10th appearance since 2010 – by knocking out Iowa Falls Alden (3-0), Roland-Story (3-0), and finally West Delaware (3-1) in the 3A District 5 regionals which finished on Oct. 24 in La Porte City.
Heading into the state tournament last week on Halloween morning, the No. 7 seed Knights were deemed the longshot in the quarterfinal matchup against the No. 2 seed Cherokee Washington Braves.
Proving they have the right stuff and then some among their roster, Union swept the Braves 25-21, 25-21, 25-15 in what was coined an ‘upset,’ but what Coach Jesse said really boiled down to his athletes playing smart and competing like they have all season.
“We felt we matched up pretty well against Cherokee,” Jesse wrote. “Their strength was their middles and we felt if we could win the battle of the middles that we could win the match. Obviously we did that … I felt that all our girls played well and contributed to the win. … our blocking was very good and our defense was also very good during the match.”
Against the Braves, Union’s roster racked up 42 kills – 16 from captain Gracie Klima – and 40 assists – 35 from junior Avery Knoop.
But on defense, the Knights really dazzled, tallying a team total of 57 digs: Klima 16, Reagan Glenn 12, Emily Anton 10, Ava Mehlert 9, Knoop 5, Bianca Grimm 4, and Dena Robb 1.
At the serve line, the Knights went 58-for-63 against the Braves with Klima and Glenn each notching an ace.
Facing a legacy
Following the first round defeat of Cherokee Washington, the Knights moved on Wednesday morning to the semifinals for just the fifth time in Union history, facing the No. 3 seed – and reigning 2A state champs – the Western Christian Wolfpack, a legacy program with immense firepower behind their name including 18 previous state championships.
The Wolfpack won the 2A state championship last year by taking down Dike-New Hartford. Following the 2022-23 season, Western moved up a class to 3A while DNH dropped down to 1A.
The Knights ultimately lost in three sets (25-14, 25-20, 25-17) to Western but gave it everything they had and then some – even clawing their way out of several significant early points deficits including midway through the third set where back-to-back blocks followed by a laser kill by Klima propelled the Knights into the lead (11-10), albeit briefly.
While Union certainly put in the work – an announcer even commented during a time out on the pink court, “You would think Union would be winning just based off the stats” – the Knights mostly trailed the powerful Western team.
“They were very good defensively and made it difficult to get kills,” Coach Jesse wrote. “They put a lot of pressure on our serve receive as they are very good servers and that was a big factor in the match. … I thought we were close in set two and just couldn’t put a few things together consistently. We battled hard, they are a very strong team that played very well that day.”
Against the Wolfpack, the Knights tallied 29 kills out of an incredible 127 attempts with Klima notching 12-for-59 to lead the offense. Knoop notched 27 of the team’s 29 assists.
On defense, Union totaled 52 digs: Glenn 21, Klima 8, Mehlert 8, Anton 6, Knoop 5, Grimm 3, and Sydney Schmuecker 1.
Of the team’s 10 total blocks, Schmuecker was responsible for six.
At the serve line, the Knights went 50-for-55; Grimm, Klima, and Knoop each had an ace apiece.
Following their win over the Knights in the semifinals, the Wolfpack went on to beat Mount Vernon 3-1 for the 3A state championship.
Accolades, senior legacy
As a back-to-back state qualifier, the Knights relied heavily this year on the experience cultivated last season to earn a repeat appearance at state. The five seniors on Union’s roster in particular played a key role, Jesse said.
“All our seniors made huge and positive contributions to the team not only this year but previous years. Gracie [Klima] worked extremely hard and maximized her abilities and had an outstanding senior year.”
“Dena [Robb] and Sydney [Schmuecker] just continued to get better throughout the season and their play was big in the postseason. They had their best matches at the regional finals and first round at state.”
“Ava [Mehlert] was one one of our top defensive players and her hustle and determination was instrumental all season long.”
“Jaimi [Hilmer] was a very positive and important member of our team and always gave everything she had for our team and our goals.”
Five Union players earned All Conference honors this season including outside hitter Gracie Klima and setter Avery Knoop who were selected for first team. Middle hitters Dena Robb and Sydney Schmuecker were selected for second team, while libero Ava Mehlert received honorable mention.
Schmuecker also received a 3A All Tournament Team selection at the state tournament.
And in a year when the NICL – and eastern Iowa in general – seemed to dominate the Iowa high school volleyball landscape, Coach Brian Jesse was named NICL East Coach of the Year, capping off a phenomenal season for Knights volleyball.
Union ends the 2023-24 season with a 39-12 (4-0) record.
Telegraph note: Photographer Kayla Robb, a Union High School alumna, was instrumental to the Telegraph’s coverage of Knights volleyball this season. We thank her for the use of her top-notch photos.