Fairfield on cusp of state tournament berth
Fairfield’s road through the Class 4A Region 6 bracket hasn’t come without its share of bumps along the way.
The rugged ride isn’t expected to smooth out anytime soon with a finals match against ninth-ranked Cedar Rapids Xavier (25-11) looming. The winner of today’s matchup will advance to the round-of-eight state tournament scheduled Nov. 7-10 at the Cedar Rapids Ice Arena in Cedar Rapids.
Although the Trojans have picked up their share of accolades in the 27 season under Nancy Diers, taking the next step has proven to be elusive. The Trojans have earned state tournament bids three times, with the most recent one in 2008.
“We’ve had a lot of good teams, and we’ve been at this doorstep several times, but we’ve only been able to walk through a few times,” said Diers. “The ultimate goal is always to get there and be one of the top eight in the state. It can be done.”
The Trojans (26-7), who were taken to five sets in their previous two playoff games this season, are making their second straight appearance in the regional final round. Like last year’s final against Solon, the Trojans enter this year’s round of 16 as the underdog.
“Xavier is a tough matchup. They don’t make a lot of mistakes, they handle the ball well and have a balanced offense,” Diers said. “They’re just a really good squad, deserving of their ranking and will be a good test for us.
“Going in, are we the underdog? Probably. But maybe that puts the pressure on their backs instead of ours,” she added.
The Saints, who were champions of the Mississippi Valley Conference’s Valley Division with a 6-0 league mark, played 21 matches against 5A competition in the regular season and seem to have caught fire at the right time. Winners of 11 of their last 14 matches, Xavier most recently swept Clear Creek-Amana (21-14) in three sets last week to earn the right to play Fairfield.
Xavier will have a height advantage against the Trojans. Their front row, led by 6-footers Kayla Torson and Melissa Everett, has been dominant at times and puts up a good block. Torson has averaged 3.91 kills per set with a .418 kill efficiency, while Everett boasts a .311 kill efficiency with a team-high 59 blocks on the season.
“We’ve been working a lot on their outside hitters,” said Diers. “They like to swing hard and they’re dynamic.”
Against such a strong group of hitters, Diers expects her team’s own blocking ability to be the deciding factor in a win or a loss. The Trojans have struggled with the timing of their blocks all season and can’t afford to continue the trend today.
“It’ll be a challenge for our blockers. If we can’t get a hand up it’ll be a short night for us,” Diers said. “Blocking has been a nemesis for us this year, and we have to be able to get that first line of defense up.
“We’re also going to have to cover with intent knowing our hit might get blocked,” she added.
Xavier also features a quick junior libero in Halle Heying, who has 3.73 digs per set, while Sarah Homan averages more than 10 assists per game from the setter position.
As good as Xavier looks on paper, they won’t be too different from the teams Fairfield has already seen in postseason play. Like Knoxville and Mount Pleasant, the Saints run a 5-1 offense that features one setter and five attackers.
As for Fairfield’s gameplan, Diers doesn’t plan on fixing what isn’t broken, and she simply looks for her Trojans to do the things that got them into the regional final. Clutch play, smarts and teamwork have been Fairfield’s strengths all season long.
“We’ve done everything we’ve wanted to do so far, and now we have to just go out there and play,” said Diers. “We need to pick and choose our points, work our offense and hopefully things go our way.”
Diers has confidence in her team to pull off the victory, and she expects her players to have that same necessary grit.
“Never say die, and obviously these kids don’t,” she said. “They keep having their backs against the wall and come out on top.”
The battle for one of the final eight spots begins today at 7 p.m. in Washington’s new high school gymnasium.
Other Class 4A matchups include:
— Lewis Central vs. Bishop Heelan —
— Dallas Center-Grimes vs. Harlan —
— Charles City vs. LeMars —
— Waverly-Shell Rock vs. Grinnell —
— West Delaware vs. Dubuque Wahlert —
— North Scott vs. Maquoketa —
— Solon vs. Oskaloosa —