(Cover photo credit: Holly Koval)
The No. 3-ranked Sacred Heart Valkyries hosted the No. 2-ranked Mercy Jaguars in front of a packed-to-the-max rowdy crowd Sunday afternoon. Though it went only three sets, the crowd was treated to an intense competition that saw SHA’s experience prevail 25-18, 30-28, 25-17.
“It’s always exciting when you get a rivalry game like this and a big crowd to go with it,” said Sacred Heart’s first year head coach Brett Versen. “They work so hard and put so much into it that I enjoy it for them because they, both teams, showed what they can do. I’m really happy with how well and how hard we played tonight.”
Sacred Heart would ride the powerful arm of 6-foot-2 senior outside hitter Paige Hammons throughout the match. Hammons recorded a match-high 16 kills and waged a spirited with Mercy senior libero Kelly O’Neil that raised the level of both players throughout, especially in the back-and-forth second set.
“We know that good teams like Mercy are going to have their runs,” Versen said. “We emphasized to our girls to relax and play our game. When we put pressure on them (Mercy) we could score and we had to remind them of that.”
No one puts more pressure on an opposing defense than the pterodactyl-armed Hammons. Her reach extends far above any block that Mercy put up which led to the terrific battle between her and O’Neil.
“We got down early in that second set and Kelly was doing a great job of digging my shots,” Hammons said. “Once we calmed down and worked ourselves back into the game it was really fun for us. We found out a lot about ourselves coming back from those four set-points.”
After finishing strong in the first set for the 25-17 win, SHA (2-0) came out a little flat in the second. Mercy took a 9-3 lead, but the Valkyries clawed back to tie the score at 10.
The second set featured eight lead changes, 11 tie scores and four missed opportunities for the Jaguars to close out the set for the win.
“I’ve known Paige for a long time,” said O’Neil, who is committed to play at Arizona next year. “She’s such a great player and it was fun to get to some of those shots, but we’ll continue to work on our blocking and positioning. We have a lot of new players on the floor so it will take a little time to adjust.”
While Hammons scored four of the Valkyries’ first 12 points in the momentum-shifting second set, it was seniors Lauryn Bennett (eight kills, one block), Kaelin Gentile (five kills, two blocks) and Katie Arnold (five kills) along with freshman middle blocker Kristen Clemons (three kills, one block) who kept them within reach.
Neci Harris, who led Mercy (3-2) with 10 kills and two blocks, had five kills in that set that came from a variety of positions. She swung out of the middle, strong side and utilized the slide play on the weak side as well. But in the end, it was SHA’s experience winning out.
“We’re still really young and we definitely have a lot of room to grow, but really that’s not an excuse,” Mercy head coach Matt Thomerson said. “We have a lot of depth on this team and that’s exciting for us. We’re still figuring out our new setter and some new players being on the floor. We’ve put out six different lineups to start the season so there’s a bit of getting to know each other still going on. It’s a long process.”
Senior Maddie Lentz stepped into the setter position this season, following four-year starter Morgan Elmore who now plays at Lipscomb University. Lentz recorded 28 assists on the night. Sophomores Jayme Scott (eight kills, one ace), Emma Schurfranz (seven kills, one block) and Lauren Myrick (six kills) supported Harris’ effort on offense.
Junior Abigail Westenhoffer had seven kills and an ace and delivered several assists as she and senior Nadia Dieudonne split the setting duties.
“I just want to contribute whatever I can to the team,” Westenhoffer said. “Setting, hitting, passing, putting up a good serve, whatever I can do to help the team grow and get better is what I’m here for. They came out really strong, fell off a bit in the second set but it was great to come back and win it the way we did.”
For all the newness from both sides, expect both teams to improve throughout the year.
“We didn’t know what exactly to expect coming into the game,” SHA senior libero Megan Crush said. “But after that second set comeback we had tons of energy. We played really well as a team and it was great to see us maintain composure in that close second game.”
The Jaguars are off through this week, but will travel to play Missouri to play two games next Saturday. Sacred Heart will play at traditional in-state power Notre Dame on Thursday.