DURANT, Iowa — Entering the season, Wilton volleyball coach Brenda Grunder saw what she referred to as a “leadership void” left from the 2018 team that finished 36-5 and ended the season playing in the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids.
In short, whatever void was left has successfully been filled as the Wilton Beavers are heading back to the state tournament.
Wilton did so by beating West Branch in four sets, 25-21, 25-22, 19-25, 25-13, Tuesday night in the Class 2A Region 8 final. The Beavers will play Clarion-Goldfield-Dows in a state quarterfinal next Wednesday at 4 p.m. in Cedar Rapids.
Statistically, it has been Kelsey Drake and Ella Caffery who have stepped up to make up the difference from last season and land Wilton fourth in the Class 2A rankings.
But Grunder is also quick to credit Taylor Garvin and Mallory Lange, among others.
“We are still a young team,” Gunder said, “but Taylor Garvin has done a remarkable job as the senior on the floor. She has a lot of poise and they listen to her. She’s a very calming influence."
And that calming influence has Wilton (35-3) back at the state tournament.
“It’s awesome,” Garvin said. “These are some of my best friends and it feels so good to go back (to state) this year.
“As a team captain, I feel like their big sister on the team. Even though I have my own sister on the team, I feel I'm that for the whole team.”
West Branch (21-16) showed early on that it was equipped to make things hard on the Beavers. The Bears would never hold a lead in the first, but there were six different ties over the course of the set, occurring as late in the set as 14-apiece.
But when things were looking at all gloomy for Wilton, the Beavers turned to their combination of Caffery and Drake.
Up 20-19 in that initial set, Drake would serve consecutive aces to lay the path for the Beavers to take a one-set advantage.
Drake would finish with a game-high 23 kills and Caffery added 12.
Caffery, though, would settle into a distributor role for much of this one.
A full-time setter on last year’s team, Caffery plays a bit more a hybrid position, accumulating a volume of kills and assists, of which she finished the night with 24.
The second set was much like the first, with Wilton holding slim leads before giving way to another tie. Garvin served back-to-back aces to put the Beavers up 12-8, which were crucial points in dictating the momentum of the game.
Garvin would later add a third ace of the set to make it 21-17 to set things up for the Caffery-Drake connection close out it out to give Wilton a two-set advantage.
In the third set, West Branch took advantage of Wilton’s tense energy that comes with being a set away from going to state. The Beavers were a little sloppy at times and clearly had trouble finding a rhythm throughout the set.
Still, Wilton battled during a set that felt like a reversal of roles in contrast to the first two. Kaiya Luneckas and Lexi Klinkkammer led the Bears in their best set, one that would force a fourth.
“I think towards the end (of the third) we knew were still up two and we could come back in the fourth,” Garvin said.
The few minutes in between the sets gave the Beavers a chance to settle down and regroup. That resulted in the Beavers’ putting forth their most dominate set of the night to punch their ticket back to the U.S. Cellular Center this year, and perhaps put the finishing touches on filling their “leadership void.”
“I feel like we’re ready (for state),” Garvin said. "We just keep peaking and I feel like we’re going to keep climbing.”