Clutch at the net

Conference play opened on the right foot for the Iowa Central volleyball team here Wednesday night.

Despite being pushed to the limit, the 17th-ranked (NJCAA Div. II) Tritons (9-1 overall, 1-0 ICCAC) pulled out a five-game victory over Ellsworth at Hodges Fieldhouse.

Scores were 25-20, 22-25, 25-20, 21-25 and 15-10.

“Not to take anything away from Ellsworth, but I think we can play a lot better than we played (Wednesday),” first-year ICCC head coach Gary Anderson said. “We’re certainly a top 10 team in the nation, but I think our nerves got to us a little. We had a whole bunch of fans in the stands, and the girls let that affect them. It’s on me to do a better job of getting the girls mentally prepared. As a top 10 team, you’re always going to get everyone’s best shot.”

In the decisive fifth set, Iowa Central gained control with an early 5-0 run behind four clutch kills from sophomore All-American Mattie Gray. Cristina Negron’s errant serve ultimately sealed the deal for the Tritons.

“Great players step up when they’re needed,” said Anderson, who owns a career record of 447-145 in 15-plus seasons. “Gray really came through for us in set five.”

Six aces higlighted the action in Game 1 for Iowa Central, which also received five kills from Gray. The Tritons later rallied from a 19-16 deficit in the third set by closing on a 9-1 flurry.

“Ellsworth really does a great job of keeping their opponents out of system,” Anderson said. “We know (the Panthers) are one of the teams we’re going to have to go through again later on this season. They are a well-coached and solid program.”

With their backs against the wall in the fourth game, which featured a combined 33 ties and lead changes, the Panthers (3-3, 0-2) used a mini 4-0 burst down the stretch to keep their upset hopes alive. Ellsworth previously tallied the last three points in the second set to even the match.

Gray, a 6-foot-0 outside hitter, registered 28 kills, 14 digs and two blocks on the evening. Kim Russell (14 kills and 10 digs), twin sister Kara Russell (37 assists), Nikki Oberfoell (29 digs) and Nicolette Lavulo (seven digs, five kills and three assists) were the other top performers for Iowa Central, which has now won six straight matches after being swept by No. 9 (Div. III) Rochester Tech. Gray, Kim Russell and Kara Russell all played for Anderson last season at Southeastern.

“Serving is the most important skill in volleyball, so that’s something we have to continue to improve on,” said Anderson. “I thought our passing was pretty good (Wednesday). Freshman Leighton Ervin stepped up and kind of helped us run our offense the way it needs to be run.”

Humboldt graduate April Jones saw regular playing time for the Panthers last night. Jones is a 5-foot-10 freshman middle hitter.

Next outing for the Tritons is Friday at the Kirkwood Tournament. Iowa Central will face third-ranked (Div. II) Johnson County in its opener at 2 p.m.