COUNCIL BLUFFS — Players showed up expecting to practice. They got a fresh start instead.
It was the middle of volleyball season, and Council Bluffs St. Albert hadn’t rediscovered the magic. Almost everyone was back from the team that made the program’s first Iowa state tournament appearance last year. Not much had changed.
Yet something felt off. The Saintes had made a few lineup changes, and the adjustment process took time. They were losing more matches than they were used to. Frustration was setting in.
So on a Saturday morning, ready to practice, the Saintes saved their season with a heart-to-heart.
“In the middle of the year we thought we were falling apart, kind of,” senior Nevada Meis said. “So we decided to start a new year. We changed the way we looked at each other and came together as a team.”
The meeting didn’t translate into perfect volleyball down the stretch. But it served as a key reminder that things would work out — if they stuck together.
Things did work out. Class 2-A No. 5 St. Albert (28-10) found its rhythm just in time to navigate a tough regional and reach state for a second straight year. Now the program wants to prove it can win a match there when it faces No. 4 West Branch (36-4) at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
“I’m a firm believer that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” St. Albert coach Angie Lantz said. “Not to be cliché, but sometimes you have to go through some adversity to bring out your true colors. I think we learned a lot from it, and we’re excited to be going back.”
Six of the Saintes’ losses came against Nebraska schools, and the team also battled a variety of injuries during the fall. It moved senior Katie Kuck from outside hitter to libero late in the season as varsity newcomers Alli Wettengel and Grace Wettengel proved their value on the front row.
In the midst of the transition, the Saintes felt the extra attention they were now getting from opponents.
“People knew who we were,” junior Kylie Ferguson said. “Last year we were always the underdog, making the comebacks and surprise wins. This year people knew who we were so we had to back it up. We were ready.”
Meis leads St. Albert offensively, averaging 3.38 kills per set. Ferguson (3.26) is next, followed by sophomore Alli Wettengel (1.30) and freshman Grace Wettengel (1.27). Sophomore setter Matti Munger distributes, with junior Josie Thomas also stepping in. Senior middle Joni Thomas and sophomore defensive specialist Kendall Biggs have made marks as well while playing in the majority of St. Albert’s sets.
West Branch 5-foot-10 senior Heather Poula (3.36 kills per set) makes her squad go, with sophomore Madison Russell (2.70) also pitching.
The Bears are preparing for their state volleyball debut and haven’t been to a state tournament in any major girls sport since the 1970s. They have won 86 of their 98 sets so far this year, with their only 1-A or 2-A loss coming against 1-A No. 1 Grundy Center.
St. Albert, suddenly a state volleyball veteran by comparison, would love to show it can win a match on the sport’s biggest prep stage. They were swept by Lake Mills in their only state match a season ago.
“We’re not as scared,” Meis said. “We had never been there before and didn’t know what we were walking into. This year we’re more prepared for what’s going to be going on and where we’re going to be.”