By Paul Najjar
Following their five-set loss last Thursday to the state’s No. 4-ranked Notre Dame Pandas, the Sacred Heart Valkyries volleyball team got back to basics in practice. And that meant a lot of repetitions on serve reception.
Those reps paid off in Wednesday night’s showdown with archrival and state No. 1-ranked Assumption. The Valkyries committed just 20 total errors en route to a relatively convincing 25-17, 23-25, 25-14, 25-22 win over the Rockets.
“We’re trying to get more creative with our offense and that comes with experience,” SHA head coach Eric Garvey said. “We were too one-dimensional against Notre Dame. We have some good hitters, but any team is easy to stop when you only feed one hitter. So we worked hard on getting others involved and really worked on our serve receive.”
It was their third match in the past 10 days against top-notch competition and Sacred Heart (5-1) learned valuable lessons from every one of them:
–In their 3-1 win over defending state champs Mercy, they gained experience in working together and winning crucial points down the stretch.
–In their 3-2 loss to Notre Dame, they learned that limiting mistakes, mixing up the attack and serve reception were tantamount to winning these types of big games.
They put all of those lessons into this win over Assumption.
Sacred Heart’s superb junior outside hitter Paige Hammons, a Florida commit, led all players with 20 kills, a stuff block and an ace to go with numerous digs that contributed to extra chances for the offense.
“We extended plays really well and Megan (Crush, libero) played fantastic tonight,” Hammons said. “It’s a fun match to play and Assumption is so strong. We were more focused tonight and prepared better for this match than the match against Notre Dame.”
Playing the best competition is nothing new for Assumption and head coach Ron Kordes. But tonight his team looked out of sync at times and confused at others. Not a typical Assumption (4-2) performance.
“I never felt that we were in control of that match, even when we were up 13-5 in the second set,” Kordes said. “We were too shaky and we kept breaking down on defense. The errors were tough to take and so many of them came off of hesitation. We’re not mentally aggressive enough right now.”
As the old saying goes, “She who hesitates is lost.” And those moments of uncertainty cost the Rockets dearly. They committed 46 scoring errors, recording double-digits in each set. That is an atypical stat for a Kordes-coached team.
If Assumption had trouble getting out of its own way, a great deal of that had to do with the constant pressure Sacred Heart put forth with a scrambling, hustling defense, sharp attacks from a variety of sources and a strong service game.
Supporting Hammons on offense were sophomore Abigail Westenhofer (11 kills), junior middle blocker Kaelin Gentile (eight kills, two blocks), junior opposite Lauryn Bennett (five kills, two blocks) and senior setter Anna Zwiebel, an LSU commit, who recorded 37 assists to go with five kills.
“We wanted to stop their middles and we came together as a team to achieve that,” Zwiebel said. “We limited our errors and received really well. We worked really hard in practice on those things. We gave away the momentum in the second set and even though we got back into that set we just didn’t have enough to finish it.”
After dropping the first set, Assumption dominated the early portion of the second. Junior outside hitter Brooke Moore scored on a stuff block, a kill and then an ace serve helping to guide the Rockets to a 13-5 lead. Sacred Heart responded with a 13-4 run that included back-to-back aces by junior defensive specialist Nadia Dieudonne. But the Rockets closed out the set with a 9-5 run, taking advantage of three straight SHA service errors along the way.
“There were a couple of runs where we just didn’t have,” Westenhofer said. “We had to come together and re-position our block and then do what we were supposed to do. Anna (Zwiebel) had a lot to do with that.”
Westenhofer enjoyed a solid all-around game with numerous digs, a couple of assists and several tips on her blocks.
Assumption’s senior middle blocker Kara Shacklette and Moore both had 12 kills and Moore added two blocks and two aces. Junior outside Jacqueline Askin knocked down 11 kills. The Rockets played without junior outside hitter Ana Crockett who was not in the gym due to illness.
“We’ve got a mental block that we have to get rid of,” Kordes said of his team. “All of us, Mercy, Sacred Heart and us, are really close (in talent and skill) this year. But you have to be mentally prepared to win these games and though we’re not there now, we’ll get there.”
The Rockets will play in the Avon, Ind. tournament on Saturday and then face the nation’s No. 2-ranked St. James Academy team from Lenexa, Kan., on Monday (Labor Day) at 10:00 a.m. at Floyd Central (Ind.) high school. Sacred Heart will play St. James following Assumption. Two matches involving three of the top 20 teams in the nation and LCSN will provide full coverage of both games.