CEDAR RAPIDS - The Iowa Central volleyball team never gave up.
Even after seeing a fourth-set lead go to Illinois Central here Thursday, the Tritons regrouped and thrived.
Iowa Central posted a 15-12 win in the fifth to secure third place at the NJCAA Div. II Tournament, topping the No. 1 seed Cougars.
Scores were 23-25, 25-21, 25-18, 24-26, 15-12 from inside the Alliant Energy PowerHouse Arena.
This marks the highest finish for the Tritons (22-4 overall) at nationals, adding to a handful of other Top-10 placings. Iowa Central has qualified for the season-ending tourney six times, with this being the first trip since 2017.
"Coming back in set five after letting set four slip away from us just showed how mentally tough and resilient this team is," Iowa Central head coach Sara Horn said. "I'm super proud of the sophomores and captains for leading this team in the right direction and for working their tails off in the craziest year we've all ever had."
Katilyn Steffes recorded a career-high 25 kills with Kealey Anderson adding 22 and Angel Baylark 18. The trio, who led the attack for the Tritons all season, also recorded a combined 21 digs and 12 assisted blocks.
"To end like this was what we wanted after we couldn't be in the championship match," Steffes said. "We played lights out and the best we could've played all season and left it all on the court because this is the last time we all will be on the court together.
"We did it for each other and made history at the same time. I will remember these memories forever."
Anderson, a returning All-American, called the week "amazing."
"The win is huge," she said. "We battled in five and I'm so excited to have ended this season on a high note. Through everything, the team is what held us together in those final moments.
"It's one thing to make it to the national tournament, but it's another to place in the Top-3. I'm so, so proud to be called a Triton."
Alesha Johnson, the reigning ICCAC Player of the Year, had 70 assists in the match. That broke the previous school record of 67 set by Gabriela Reyes in 2012.
Haley Alharithy added eight kills and five assisted blocks, Molly McCauley and Bailey Dugan each had two kills, and Baylyn Johnson registered 25 digs. Steffes had 20 digs, Dugan 11 and Alesha Johnson 10.
Steffes also had two aces with McCauley and Dugan recording one each.
"We had some people step up and have some big games," Horn said. "Bailey stepped in there and played back row and made some huge digs. Angel, Katilyn and Kealey all had huge matches for us. I was really proud of how this team dug deep and figured out how to beat the No. 1 ranked team in the nation after being disappointed with (the semifinal) loss."
For Illinois Central, Hannah Alvey had 21 kills and Courtney Heffren 18. The Cougars had seven aces as a team and Kalli Terrell had 26 digs.
-By Dana Becker