CEDAR RAPIDS — They carry a 52-match winning streak and a top-10 national ranking.
Their roster contains a half-dozen 6-footers and three players committed to Division-I programs.
The Mount Vernon Mustangs have it all, except an easy path to a championship. They are guaranteed nothing.
That reflects the strength and the depth of the Class 3A pool at the state volleyball tournament, which opens Wednesday at the U.S. Cellular Center.
“Nothing is given to us,” said Mustangs Coach Shirley Ryan. “Everybody always plays their best against us. All we can do is play our best.”
The consensus among the state’s expects is that Mount Vernon (37-0) and Waverly-Shell Rock (48-1) are the top two teams in Iowa. In any class.
Mount Vernon steamrolled to the 2A title last year while Waverly-Shell Rock upset Sioux City Heelan for the 3A crown.
Both returned the bulk of their talent for this season, and a title-match showdown has seemed inevitable since it was clear that Mount Vernon was moving up a class. The teams have been ranked 1-2 in 3A all season.
However, the Mustangs and the Go-Hawks don’t hold a monopoly on title dreams.
No. 3 West Delaware (39-3) has beaten everybody it has faced, with the exception of three losses to Mount Vernon. And No. 4 Sioux City Heelan (45-9) has reached the state tournament for the 13th straight year, and to overlook the Crusaders would be a foolish move.
John Tawa, owner/CEO of prepvolleyball.com, has watched the ascent of Iowa volleyball from afar.
“I’m familiar with the personnel that play (club volleyball) for the Iowa Rockets and with Six Pack,” said Tawa, who is based out of Oregon. “Both of those teams qualify at the national level and fare quite well.
“The last four years, volleyball in Iowa has really ratcheted up.”
Tawa conducts a weekly top-100 national ranking. Despite an enrollment of 293 in grades 10-12, Mount Vernon is rated No. 6 in Tawa’s most recent list. Waverly-Shell Rock is 25th.
Class 4A qualifiers Ankeny and Iowa City West also are in the top 100.
“To have a collection of tall, athletic kids in a town that’s not very big, and to achieve what they’ve achieved, with a group that doesn’t concentrate exclusively on volleyball … that’s pretty remarkable,” Tawa said of Mount Vernon.
Mount Vernon’s starters feature players that stand 6-foot, 6-1, 6-1, 6-1 and 6-2. Three of the long bodies — Ali Stark, Courtney Kintzel and Amanda Platte — have committed to play next year at Illinois, Northern Iowa and Drake, respectively.
“They are certainly the team to beat,” said West Delaware Coach Brett Mather. “Somebody’s going to have to rise up to get them. They’re phenomenal.”
Waverly-Shell Rock has three D-I commitments of its own. Rachel Peth will join Kintzel at UNI, Morgan Kuhrt picked Iowa State and Kelsey Roggemann chose Eastern Illinois.
“They are very strong and very well-balanced,” Ryan said. “They have all the tools to be a very dangerous team.”
Twice this season, the Go-Hawks have beaten 4A No. 1 Ankeny. They lost to Mount Vernon in the final of the Go-Hawk Invitational.
“Clearly, they’re the No. 2 team in the state,” Tawa said.
Said WSR Coach Eavon Woodin: ”Mount Vernon beat us in the regular season, and they went through 2A last year without much of a hassle. They’re the best.”
West Delaware has developed a reputation through the past decade from its back-row play.
“We take pride in our defense and frustrating other teams,” Mather said. “We talk about defense, serve reception and tempo. We try to extend rallies as long as we can.”
The Hawks’ defense is so strong that Ryan adopted a drill in its honor.
“We have a drill called the West Delaware Drill,” said Mount Vernon’s Amanda Platte. “Whenever our starters get a kill, the coach will throw in another ball, because West Delaware would get the ball back up.”
When does the point end in that drill?
“Whenever Coach is happy.”
Then there’s Heelan, a fixture at the U.S. Cellular Center. The Crusaders’ faces change — both on the court and on the bench — but they always make it back.
Heelan has won three titles, most recently in 2007.
“They just reload,” Ryan said.
On paper, Mount Vernon is the best team. On the plastic Sport Court, we’ll see. In victory or heartbreak, an era will end this week for the senior-laden Mustangs.
“It’s been a dream team for me, no matter what happens,” Ryan said.