“It seems like you’ve got to be top five in the country just to win the state.” – Mercy head coach Todd Garvey – July 2014.
Two of the nation’s finest high school volleyball teams squared off in the first round of what will probably be several matches this season. And the first three rounds went the way of Kentucky’s No. 1-ranked Mercy Jaguars when they won at No. 2 Assumption 25-21, 25-23, 25-21 Monday night.
Mercy (10-0), which extended its consecutive game win streak to 30, came into the season ranked No. 6 in the nation according to prepvolleyball.com and Assumption just behind them at No. 9. The Rockets dispatched a much taller preseason No. 1 Indianapolis Cathedral team 3-1 just two weeks ago. But Assumption (6-1), a team loaded with arguably the best defense in the country, had no answer for the Jaguars’ one-two punch of outside hitter Merideth Jewell and middle blocker Lexie Hamrick.
“We can’t play their style,” Assumption head coach Ron Kordes admitted. “They’re too big for us, too powerful for us right now. They’re a solid team. Hopefully, experience over the season will help us get more of that.”
Though the Rockets’ superb defense recorded 59 digs, the Jaguars’ big-swinging senior duo pounded 26 kills, 13 each, with Jewell adding an ace for good measure. Hamrick led all players with nine blocks and setter Morgan Elmore added five blocks along with 32 assists and two kills.
“I’m really proud of the girls for keeping their composure,” Mercy head coach Todd Garvey said through the din of a celebratory Mercy student section. “It was a tough environment and we didn’t play perfect ball, but they handled the pressure and finished strong. It was good to close out the games the way we did.”
Each of the three sets was filled with big plays, bigger swings and long, hard-fought rallies. Just when the Jaguars thought they might be able to break away and extend their lead past four, five or six points, the Rockets fired right back with healthy doses of defense, guts and guile.
But it was Jewell flying around the court, flashing her fine all-around game, providing strong leadership and demoralizing kills that kept Assumption from threatening to overcome her Mercy squad.
“Merideth was phenomenal tonight,” Garvey said. “She’s a great player, great leader and communicated so well with our defense. Our offense carried us the first couple of weeks of the season, and we’ve been working hard on our improving our defense and the girls really stepped up in that area tonight.”
Jewell added three blocks and led all players with 16 points. The Morehead State commit put her stamp on the match by scoring the final point in the first game and the next to last point in the next two games. Clutch points that came in some tense moments.
“We definitely had to stay calm and relaxed, that was the key,” Jewell said. “When they were making (their) runs, people started freaking out a little bit. And I just said, ‘Calm down; we’ve played them several times before and we know how they work.’ It all came down to who could block out everything and focus on the game.”
Leading Mercy’s defensive stand was senior libero Nikki Koval with 26 digs. Jewell backed up Koval’s performance with 10 and Kelly O’Neil and Lindsey Stuber each picked up nine. Koval, a South Florida commit, was well aware of the Assumption defense and picked up her team with several rally-extending digs that ended with a put-away swing from the 6-foot-2 Hamrick or the 5-11 Jewell.
“They have a great back row,” Koval said of Assumption’s defense. “We just tried to keep each other upbeat and kept communicating with our blockers to let them know where we would be defending. I love this atmosphere because everyone on the team is into the game.”
While Mercy enjoyed a distinct size advantage, the first advantage of such disparity over Assumption in Garvey’s eight years as head coach, the first set was filled with errors. Mercy erred 11 times and Assumption nine, five of which came on serves. The Jaguars took their biggest lead at 15-8 but had to fend off a late Rockets rally to win it.
Assumption’s error-prone ways continued into the second set as it gave away seven of Mercy’s first 17 points, then rallied from a 20-14 deficit to pull within one point at 24-23. But a service error ended the second game in the Jaguars’ favor. And though Mercy committed 30 total errors in the match to Assumption’s 27, the Jaguars’ 37 total kills (Assumption had 26) helped overcome the Rockets’ stellar defense.
Rockets setter Shelby Olsen had 24 assists and recorded a team-high 13 digs. Louisville commit Molly Sauer dug up 12 spikes and Nebraska commit Kenzie Maloney added nine. Junior middle blocker Kara Shacklette and sophomore outside hitter Ana Crockett led the team with six kills each and senior Miranda Elpers had five.
“We came out as the underdog and we had points where we were right there with them and points where we let up,” Sauer said. “They were hitting so well and their hitters are huge. They’ll get their share of shots, but we just had to let them go and move one. We’ll be ready next time.”
Next time could come as early as this weekend in the prestigious Louisville Volleyball Invitational Tournament to be held Friday and Saturday at the Ohio Valley Volleyball Center. Mother McAuley out of Chicago, ranked in the top 5 according to prepvolleyball.com, will be vying for supremacy as well as St. Joseph’s Academy from St. Louis and one of the top teams out of Louisiana.