Pats see more mature future

Dave Weatherwax/The Herald
CJ Nance, center, and April Kippenbrock forged a block on Jasper’s Reagan Hochmeister during Saturday’s Class 3A volleyball sectional championship at Jasper. The Patriots hung close in the first set before ending their season with a 25-21, 25-15, 25-9 setback. For a gallery of photos, click here.

By JOSEPH FANELLI
Herald Sports Writer

JASPER — For the first set of Saturday’s Class 3A sectional championship matchup against Jasper, it seemed like an occasionally inconsistent Heritage Hills volleyball team had to come to play.

The Patriots zoomed to a quick 4-1 lead with a heavy dose of outside hitter Madi Fella. The Wildcats answered with their own power hitter up front in Tori Sermersheim, but a resilient Heritage Hills team rode out bunches of Jasper scores with points of its own. Midway through the first set, it felt like the crowd at Jasper High School gym would be in for an extended, competitive match.

But when the wheels fall off, it’s destined to be a much quicker ride.

The Patriots fell to the Wildcats for the second straight year in the sectional championship in a 25-21, 25-15, 25-9 loss that left players and coaches wondering what happened to the team that walked onto the court an hour before. The loss was the last dip in an up-and-down season that featured glimpses of the talent that Patriot coach Annie Gunselman said she’s seen in her team all year.

Ultimately though, the biggest hurdle for the Patriots was harnessing that capability for extended periods.

“That’s kind of been our hallmark,” Gunselman said. “We have a tendency to have highs and then we drop off. When you’re in a sectional game and you’re that close and the emotions and you lose that first one, it’s always kind of difficult to pick yourself up from that, and I think when we lost that first one … we were just never able to recover.”

In a rematch of the regular-season bout between the Patriots and Wildcats — in which Heritage Hills was also swept, albeit in three competitive sets — an aggressive attack by Heritage Hills (13-20) initially pressured an athletic Jasper squad at the net. Fella, April Kippenbrock, Miriah Leibering and CJ Nance used their long frames to challenge Jasper (20-16), but after the 25-21 first set, the play from Heritage Hills dropped significantly.

Jasper started the second set with five straight points on a mixture of unforced errors from the Patriots — a spike into the net, a mishandled serve, and another shot that sailed long — and Heritage Hills struggled to gather momentum the rest of the night.

Gunselman pointed to an attacking middle that just couldn’t generate any pressure as the Pats found themselves on the wrong end of too many big Jasper hits all night.

“We left them a lot of open net,” Gunselman said. “We didn’t have very many attacks. In our middle, probably all night long, we probably maybe swung at the ball  five to seven times. So every time we were going, it was high outside or (sending free balls) over, and a team like Jasper, who has a nice array of front- row hitters, you give them free balls and it’s just a hit fest for them. It felt like that’s what it was tonight. We didn’t play much offense, and consequently they played lots of offense. We were on our heels pretty much the whole night.”

Streaky play is something the Patriots have battled all season and was evident Saturday morning in the Patriots’ 25-14, 25-23, 25-19 sweep of Pike Central. After dominating an overmatched Chargers squad in the first, the Pats labored through errors in the next set. Heritage Hills seemed to recover in the third, exploding to 21-9 margin, but allowed Pike Central 10 more points before finally closing out the Chargers.

Still, Heritage Hills showed flashes of what its long, athletic roster can do when it’s sharp.

Against Jasper, Fella led all Patriots with 15 kills, two blocks and two aces, followed by Kippenbrock with six kills. Leibering finished with 17 assists and nine digs.

The good news for the Patriots is that nearly the entire team returns next season, with McKensie Ayer the lone departing senior. With maturity will come expectations, though, as Gunselman stressed there will be no reason why next year’s team shouldn’t be successful.

“That’s up to them,” Gunselman said. “The talent was there this year. I didn’t feel like we always challenged ourselves and held ourselves as accountable as we should. ... No excuses next year. This year we have, ”˜We’re young and inexperienced,’ but a good number of these kids are juniors and they have to challenge themselves. ... There is no reason they should not be very successful and it’s just a matter of holding ourselves and accountable and challenging ourselves to get to that next level.”

“We have next year and next year we keep pretty much the whole team minus (Ayer). She will be missed, but we can bring it if we want to,” Fella said.

“We need to have confidence in each other and know that we can do it. Just believe.”

Contact Joseph Fanelli at jfanelli@dcherald.com




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