It was a task that seemed almost insurmountable.
And they had to survive it two sets in a row.
In the third set, Kuemper was in trouble. Unity Christian led 20-13 and was threatening to run away with a third-set victory. Kuemper had to fight back and everyone focused on the same three or four members of the team.
Seniors Anna Niehaus, Kara Peter, Mallory Badding and Madison Leonard were going to have to pull the Knights out of the slump they were in.
They went on the attack, and although Unity Christian would eventually force set point with a 24-18 lead, the Knights never gave up. They fought harder, eventually trimming the deficit to two points.
Unity Christian would eventually get the final point to win the third set 25-22, but Kuemper gained an ultimate lesson in that critical third set.
“The third set was huge for us,” said Kuemper Catholic head coach, Keith Stickrod. “That gave us the confidence to know that even if we get down we can fight back. Even though we didn’t win that comeback gave us confidence. That’s the biggest thing about our team. We can use the confidence if we need to.”
For the seniors, who the rest of the team looked to for guidance during the third set, they were able to build off what they had learned.
They also gained some trust in their young teammates who were playing through the first time jitters of the big stage that is the U.S. Cellular Center in Cedar Rapids. From that third set win came confidence, and a lesson on how much this team has grown since they first started play in August.
“I learned that when we were down during the season we wouldn’t be able to get out of it,” said Kara Peter, one of the seniors of Kuemper Catholic. “It was really cool to see that we could step up and make it a two point game, which is really awesome compared to a nine point game. We were able to get the confidence in ourselves and the rest of our teammates.”
Kuemper would need that confidence late in the fourth set of the match too. Once again Unity Christian had gained a late lead. For the second straight set the Kuemper Knights would have to dig themselves out of a hole.
This time they were down 24-19. They knew that the slightest misstep would cause the match to be thrust into a wild west shootout fifth-set where anything can happen.
Then came the break the Knights needed. Unity Christian had a kill attempt land out of bounds.
Even luckier for the Knights was the fact that senior Anna Niehaus had the serve.
“I was serving, all I needed to do was go back there and be confident,” Niehaus said. “I was a little nervous at the start.”
Soon the nerves melted. Kuemper rolled off back-to-back points. They were down just two.
Then a third point brought the Knights within one of Unity Christian. Peter wound up and smacked a fastball right into the gut of a Unity Christian back row player. The match was tied at 24.
For Niehaus that was all she needed. Her confident serves had brought Kuemper right back into the match.
“Once we got it tied at 24, that felt great,” Niehaus said. “It was amazing. Once we had it tied, I felt like I could take a breath.”
It wasn’t just Niehaus that took a breath. The rest of the team seemed to as well.
With that breath seemed to come confidence.
“I never stopped believing in the girls,” Stickrod said. “I told the girls that the fourth set was going to be ours. I’m not sure they believed it, but we pulled through.”
One thing that helped the Knights power through to the eventual fourth set win was the trust they had in each other, and the coaches. That rust helped them battle through six ties and four lead changes in the final five points.
“I think that fourth set was all trust,” Peter said. “We hustled and had each others’ backs. We knew that if someone had a rough couple points then someone else would come back and make a play. We all trusted each other. It was just trust that took us through that game.”
The trust paid off. Unity Christian panicked at the end and called a time out leading 24-23. But once the match was tied at 24, even despite facing set point twice, Kuemper fought back.
“They had game point a few times, and we were kind of like, ‘ehhh that’s not great,’” Stickrod said about Unity Christian nearly pulling off a fourth-set win. “But it was good to see our girls as composed as they were (Wednesday afternoon). They were able to come through and get the big win.”
It was a win that was the catalyst for the Knights to gain the fourth set and match win (they had earned a 25-18 first set win, and followed that up with a 25-23 second set win).
With the come-from-behind fourth set victory the Knights once again secured a berth in the State semi-final round (their fifth-straight semi-final appearance). This time the Knights entered the next round with a lot more confidence.
When they entered the class 3A tournament the Knights had confidence, but more questions on how their younger players would perform. Going into the semi-finals, after climbing out of two nearly insurmountable deficits the Knights have the confidence that has extended their State volleyball tournament legacy.