Balanced Cats shake trepidation away

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Rachel Sternberg, left, and Emma Stout elevated to attempt a block during Thursday’s Class 3A sectional at Jasper. The Wildcats breezed through the first round, dumping Washington 25-17, 25-19, 25-21 to reach Saturday’s semifinals against Vincennes Lincoln. For a gallery of photos, click here.

Herald Sports Editor

JASPER — There’s a range of ways to deal with nerves. Some players retreat into their silent, introspective shells. Others balloon back to life after a pep talk.

Then, there’s whatever Reagan Hochmeister did.

“She said she got in her uniform three hours before the game, and her and her mom were in their living room dancing. So she was a little nervous, yeah,” Jasper volleyball coach Liz Milligan said with a laugh. “But that’s OK. I’ll take that anytime. I told her, you need to go home and do that again tomorrow. She was pumped up, definitely.”


Thursday night, with her antsy pre-prematch jig already shaken out of her system, the Jasper sophomore tiptoed toward the head of the attack for a Wildcat squad that assumed a different complexion of sorts in the first round of the Class 3A sectional. The Wildcats deleted Washington 25-17, 25-19, 25-21 and reached Saturday’s semifinal tilt against Vincennes Lincoln thanks to new faces in different situations.

Jasper (18-16) welcomed back Rachel Sternberg, who wasn’t supposed to play the rest of the season but boosted the Wildcats with her serving. And with senior standout Tori Sermersheim relatively muted in an eight-kill night, it was little more than a minor nuisance for the Cats. Different terminators assumed the lead.

Sermersheim’s first kill of the match didn’t come until the Cats led 19-13, but the Cats still grabbed command as Hochmeister and Emma Stout merged for 10 kills in the first set. One of Hochmeister’s putaways was accidentally successful, as at 20-16 in the first set, one of her hits smacked the tape and danced about halfway down the net cord before plopping down on Washington’s side. Two points later, there was no mistake when Hochmeister lowered the boom on perhaps Jasper’s most authoritative kill of the night.

The sophomore steadied her arm for a team-best 10 kills. Hoch-meister wasn’t quite sure how, considering that even after the match, she couldn’t settle her quaking hands. She held out both, still trembling, as proof.

“Still shaking,” she said. “But that’s OK. I’m excited now.”

“My teammates definitely helped me,” added Hochmeister, who contributed a trio of aces as well. “Whenever I’m nervous, they always bring me together and tell me it’s going to be OK, believe in yourself. They give me confidence.”

Elisabeth Ahlbrand matched Hochmeister with 10 kills, several of which helped the Cats snuff out Washington surges as the junior “really helped us get over the hump tonight,” Milligan said.

With Stout’s batch of eight kills and two blocks, the Cats made another stride toward necessary diversity, Milligan said.

“We definitely go as (Sermersheim) goes, but I was really glad to see those other two middle hitters step it up, because as we head down here into the tournament, it’s going to come down to a point where we’re going to have to start relying on them a little more, too,” Milligan said. “They stepped it up, and came up big, especially Reagan, she had a couple of those huge swings for us in the middle.”

Teyah Leinenbach melded the hitting barrage with 29 assists, Michala Flamion tucked away 18 digs and three aces, and another boost arrived from a junior who had been out of commission for about two months.

Sternberg returned to action, and it reduced the size of what the team dubbed “the boot club” as Sternberg, Katie Krempp and Sophie Weidenbenner all toddled around in walking boots this season to mend their various maladies. For Sternberg, it was sprained ligaments in her foot, which was supposed to cost her six to eight weeks. Instead, she was back in 41⁄2 weeks.

Thursday was Sternberg’s first match back, and that made everything feel like heaven. Even a floorburn. Early in the second set, Sternberg dove to retrieve a serve, with her skin squeaking across the floor. Nothing felt better.

“Oh, my God, you have no idea how good it feels to sweat again and actually get to exercise again,” Sternberg said. “It’s amazing. I have no problems with (the foot), so I’m lucky.”

Sternberg also delivered three aces, and Milligan liked the fact that her aggressive, deep serve can add another layer to Jasper’s artillery. Thursday, it also helped Jasper get on and off the floor in a relative hurry in a match that ended past 10 p.m. after Lincoln (12-20) went the distance to graze Mitchell in the first semifinal, winning 19-17 in the fifth set after trailing 14-11.

Of the other three teams left in the sectional, none has a winning record and the Cats own regular-season sweeps over both Lincoln and Heritage Hills. But Milligan is well aware there’s still work to do, since Thursday’s outing wasn’t the ne plus ultra of what the Cats are capable of.

“Vincennes, they’re a very tough, scrappy team, so we’re going to have to be on our toes,” Milligan said.

“We’re going to have to pick it up for our matches on Saturday. You can get by sometimes winning (matches) like that, but you’ve got to come out and play strong every point and every game, and you’ve got to get fired up.”

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