College volleyball: Statesmen in the 'Heart' of national contenders

Mar. 14—OSKALOOSA — The William Penn men's volleyball wanted to get to the locker room well before their head coach made his way up the hallway from the Penn Activities Center.

The Statesmen had a surprise awaiting Luke Bentley after a thrilling four-set win over second-ranked Park. In just their 14th match of the season, William Penn had just secured one of the program's biggest regular-season wins.

How does a team celebrate that accomplishment? By greeting their head coach with a water bottle shower as soon as he opened the locker room door.

"The guys got a little excited," Bentley said with a smile after grabbing a towel and change of some drier clothes. "I guess it's not a bad thing for my suit to be a little damp given the circumstances."

William Penn challenged themselves last week against their top two rivals in both the Heart of America Conference and, perhaps, the battle for positioning for the NAIA National Tournament. After the 25-23, 30-32, 31-29, 25-18 home win over Park, the Statesmen were edged by fifth-ranked Grand View last Friday in another thrilling Heart battle as the Vikings won 25-19, 24-26, 25-19, 22-25 and 15-12 in Des Moines improving to 14-2 overall and 8-0 in conference play opening a two-game lead over both Park and William Penn.

"It's kind of nice to start out at their place. We'll be able to see them again later this year at our place," Bentley said. "I wouldn't expect anything less than a really good match. They got us last year in the conference semifinals. I don't think there's too much bulletin-board material needed when we face Grand View. When they come up, our guys know what's at stake."

William Penn still finds themselves right in the thick of the hunt when it comes to ultimately finding its way to the national tournament for the second time in three seasons. Last Tuesday's four-set over Park ensured that as well as a measure of revenge after being edged by the Pirates in five sets on their home floor last season.

"There were a few big differences from that match last year to this one. The biggest thing was I think our guys wanted it more," Bentley said. "There's a little more at stake with this match and I think the guys understood it this year going in. We lost this match and, ultimately, didn't get to go to the national tournament. They know they need to win these matches to get there."

Winning the match meant winning some amazingly close points at pivotal moments. Landon Krause and Charles Figy both scored on key kills for the Statesmen late in the opening game, each time erasing slim Park leads, before a block by Figy, Devyn Zavala and Cezar Pedroso gave the Statesmen a pair of opening-set points up 24-22.

"The biggest difference this year was we knew what to expect from them and we knew we were going to have to fight for it," Krause said. "You have to go into every single set knowing that it's going to be a battle in these type of matches. You have to treat each set like it's 0-0 and battle for it to the end."

William Penn was able to put away the opening set against Park thanks to a service error by Joao Friedrich. The Pirates responded in the second game, jumping out to a 16-10 lead, before the Statesmen responded as a pair of kills by Ike Papes sparked an 11-5 run that tied the set at 21-21.

From there, Park and William Penn engaged in the first of two marathon sets. The Statesmen survived a pair of game points by the Pirates at 24-22, but could not pull ahead of Park as the teams exchanged the next 10 points leaving the second set tied at 30-30 before kills by Mihailo Ivanovic and Leonardo Maldonado finally gave the Pirates the win to level the match at 1-1.

The pivotal third game of the match wouldn't quite go as long, but was even tighter as neither team held more than a two-point lead at any point. This time, after erasing three set points by Park, William Penn gave themselves five chances to clinch the set before a block by Figy and Pedroso finally clinched a 31-29 win that gave the Statesmen all the momentum they would need to push forward in the match.

"Once we get into extra points, there's little room for error," Krause said. "We just made sure to communicate and stay strong behind each other. We just had to take it one point at a time. That's how we found a way to pull out those close sets."

Ultimately, the match would be defined by errors as Park would finish the match committing 25 hitting errors and 23 serving errors. With the match on the line, William Penn's attack was perfect in the fourth set going 20-20 with 12 kills while Park committed five hitting errors and struggled to serve with a vocal William Penn student section turning up the volume with the Statesmen on the verge of the victory.

"They were huge for us. They provided a lot of assistance," Krause said of the Statesmen fans. "Once we had that third set, we knew the crowd was going to get into it. There were about seven serves that they impacted Park on. It just helped us continue to keep confident."

William Penn never looked back in the fourth set against Park after jumping out to a 10-6 lead. The Statesmen never let the Pirates get any closer than three points in the clinching game, clinching the win on a kill by Papes.

Krause led William Penn against Park with 16 kills while matching teammate Anthony Torres with a pair of ace serves. Papes recorded 23 kills for William Penn on Friday on a .531 attacking clip in the five-set loss to Grand View.

"We really know that we can compete with anyone," Krause said. "We've won some big matches before, but we've faced the best teams we've faced so far this year. Being able to hang in there with them proves that we can play with anyone. It's not going to be any easier moving forward.

"We still have to go down to Park for a match later this year, but we're excited for the challenges ahead."

William Penn stepped back from their stretch of top-10 conference rivals, sweeping a Heart of America road match at 3-12 Graceland 25-14, 25-13 and 25-22. Krause added 12 kills and a pair of aces against the Yellowjackets.

William Penn (13-3, 7-2 Heart) will be back home for three straight matches starting next week. The Statesmen host Mount Mercy on Tuesday, Missouri Valley the following Friday night and Saturday afternoon match against Culver-Stockton on Mar. 23.