By Paul Najjar
To score effectively in volleyball your defense feeds the offense. The Assumption Rockets are proving that point repeatedly as the 2015 season moves into its final few weeks of competition.
The No. 2-ranked Rockets swept past the visiting No. 4-ranked Mercy Jaguars in straight sets Thursday night. The 25-21, 25-17, 25-23 win gave Assumption (23-8) its second three-set sweep of Mercy (22-6) this season.
And it was the Rockets defense asserting itself once again and making its case clear. You have to work really hard to put a ball on the floor against them.
“I’ve always felt that you have to play good defense to win,” Assumption head coach Ron Kordes said. “I was real happy with our blocking and our defense in the first two sets, but in the third set we stood around a bit and watched balls fall down. That’s the easiest way to lose momentum and that’s what happened to us.”
Down 21-20 in the first set, the Assumption defense dug in and sparked a 5-0 run to close out the set. Junior outside hitter Brooke Moore, who led the Rockets with 11 kills, scored two of those points while Mercy gave away the final two points with hitting errors.
“I feel like we’re learning a little be every time we step on the floor,” Mercy head coach Matt Thomerson said. “Don’t get me wrong, we definitely don’t want to come into somebody’s gym and walk out (losing) 0-3, but at the same time the girls are figuring out things since the last time we played Assumption.”
Mercy scored 55 total points in the three set loss on Sep. 8 and the match wasn’t very competitive. The Jaguars extended Assumption, but just couldn’t find the answers late in the match.
“We’ve got to be more aggressive,” Thomerson said. “It’s taking a little more time than I’d like, but we’re getting some kids healthy and back on the floor. And we need to block better.”
Assumption senior setter Shelby Olsen quarterbacked the Rockets offense dishing out 34 assists. Thanks to her team’s stellar defense in the first two sets she was able to get 13 kills out of the middle on quick sets and another four kills on the slide play.
Senior middle blocker Kara Shacklette recorded nine kills, seven on quick sets from the middle and two on the slide play. Sophomore middle Kayla Kaiser had eight kills with five coming from quick sets in the middle and two more from the weak side.
“Our defense was incredible and their passes were critical for our middles to put balls away,” Olsen said. “Our defense and our swinging were consistent tonight and that helped us get the win.”
Mercy’s senior outside hitter Madison Mudd led all players with 15 kills as both teams tallied 37 total kills for the match. The most notable scoring difference was in the blocks stat. Assumption scored eight points off of their blocks to Mercy’s one.
Junior Anna Palmer led Assumption with three blocks and Jacqueline Askin added two more.
“First thing we have to talk about is our blocking,” Assumption libero Allie Gregory said. “With our blocking tonight, it made our defensive responsibilities and coverage so much easier. Our blockers made us (back row players) so much better.”
Trailing two sets to none, Mercy found a new resolve and took a 17-15 lead in the third set. But Assumption went on a 10-6 run to close out the set, forcing five Mercy errors along the way.
“We made our share of errors tonight,” Thomerson said. “Sometimes it’s a match-up issue, but I’m proud of the way our girls swung tonight. And Morgan (setter Morgan Elmore) was nearly flawless.”
Elmore recorded 36 assists and had countless deflections from her front row rotations. The senior is putting the team on her back and doing all she can to squeeze out every ounce of talent from her inexperienced underclassmen.
“You could see the competitiveness and the heart of our team tonight,” Elmore said. “We’re playing together and we had each other’s backs. We were playing fast and confident. We’ve been adding some new plays and wrinkles to our offense. Though we didn’t get many blocks, we had our hands on a lot of balls and held our blocks much better tonight.”
The top four teams—No. 1 Sacred Heart, Assumption, No. 3 Notre Dame and Mercy—continue to baffle conventional wisdom. Mercy has two three-set losses to Assumption and two losses to Sacred Heart, but has defeated Notre Dame twice. Assumption is 1-1 against Notre Dame as is Sacred Heart. The Rockets are 0-2 against Sacred Heart and welcome the Valkyries to their gym Sunday afternoon.
“Sacred Heart’s got our number right now,” Kordes said. “They’re playing so relaxed and with smiles on their faces and that’s where we’ve got to get. It’s all mental with us. Sacred Heart’s a very good team and the expectations are high for us.”
Indeed, those expectations include national championships to go with the 18 state titles Kordes and his program has won since 1992. Prior to the match Kordes recognized his 2005 team which was chosen as the nation’s No. 1 team by PrepVolleyball.com.
“Our legacy is something we have to deal with every year,” Kordes said. “And these girls have to deal with all of the questions from parents and fans and media anytime they lose. The expectations are so high across the board. It’s unfair, but we can’t change it.”
The Seventh Region powers and archrivals take to the court Sunday at 5:00 p.m. at Assumption. State No. 1 SHA is ranked No. 8 in the most recent PrepVolleyball.com poll, while Assumption sits at No. 25 following their loss to Notre Dame at the Asics Challenge in Chicago last week.