Jasper finds the connection of you pass, you win

Ariana van den Akker/The Herald
Jasper’s Mariah Moeller dug an incoming hit as Michala Flamion backed her up during Tuesday’s regional triumph over Evansville Bosse. The Wildcats are in the semistate for the third straight season thanks to an uptick in their passing as the team’s defensive specialists have become more comfortable in their expanded roles. The defense will be tested in Saturday’s second semistate semifinal at Edgewood, as the Cats clash with Brownstown Central.  


Herald Sports Editor

The concept assumed so many identities.

It was a vexing riddle. It was somewhat of a contentious subject among the Jasper volleyball players. It was a tiresome topic but one that had promise of potential, as coach Liz Milligan constantly dangled the promise in front of her team: We can be a good team if we can just pass the ball.

“Every day, it was just a constant reminder,” Jasper senior Abby Pierce said.

Unearthing the solution required better than a month, spawned frustration in the process and required that the Wildcats solve something called “the doughnut.” At last, the Cats think they may have arrived. These days, their passing abilities are earning passing marks, and the buttoned-up defense has Jasper (21-16) on track for a semistate date with Brownstown Central (25-12) in the second semifinal early Saturday afternoon at Edgewood.

All year Milligan has pounded and prodded, as the first-year coach has harped on the necessity for clean passing while standing on a block at practices and rifling hit after hit toward a group of defensive players who mostly just needed time to ripen. Of the Cats’ defensive specialists, Pierce and senior compatriot Mariah Moeller played just sparse minutes a year ago, and sophomore libero Michala Flamion has earned her coach’s endorsement all along as a player who can crescendo into a steadfast force on the back line.

But there’s no easy way to fast-track that progress. The Cats settled for tiny paces in generating chemistry and instincts.

“I think everyone has improved a lot, just being able to read the hitter’s arm and predict where the ball’s going to go, and get to the position to get the ball up — I think everyone’s improved in doing that,” Pierce said.

And, sure, some hits come hurtling toward the back row at wicked speed, so the expectation isn’t to rescue everything.

But a particular hiccup haunted Jasper in the season’s early stages.

Miscommunication occasionally froze the Cats on defense, and they’d let balls drop. It’s volleyball’s unpardonable sin. And Milligan sure didn’t excuse it, as Moeller remembered stealing a glance toward the sideline and seeing “the look.”

“We look over there, and you can tell she’s disappointed in us,” Moeller said.

“If we let any balls drop or look at each other and don’t communicate and something drops, that really get under her skin. We just know better now that we talk, we get the ball, we don’t let anything drop. If we do that, she stays pretty happy.”

For a time, Milligan pondered installing a whole new defense and briefly toyed with a new 6-2 setup on offense with two setters in the rotation instead of one. But sticking with that setup likely would have required Pierce to be phased out of the lineup. And as Pierce began cementing her stock thanks to her reliable serve-receive, Milligan knew Pierce had to remain in the fold.

One tweak the Cats have executed is assigning the off-side blocker to flag down shots tipped into “the doughnut” — the vulnerable no-man’s land between the blockers and the back row. When soft shots do stray beyond the blocker’s reach, though, Jasper feels more equipped to keep the rally afloat.

“Abby really gets those tips up and she’s been doing a lot better with that, and Michala really guards that back line really well,” Moeller said. “Compared to what we were at the beginning of the season, we’ve all come really far, but especially those two on the back line.”

Milligan bats the compliment back to Moeller, saying that her whole defense has progressed but noting Moeller’s improvement stands out. Moeller earned the nickname “Hoover” for a night when Jasper downed perennial Big Eight Conference frontrunner Boonville late in the season, because “she was like a vacuum, she was picking up everything off the floor.”

That night against Boonville, Moeller and Flamion almost equally split 44 digs. In turn, teammates Tori Sermersheim and Elisabeth Ahlbrand squashed 20 kills apiece. Point A to Point B, slick passing prompts sharp offense. And the match that showcased that perhaps above all others came in Saturday’s sectional championship, as Milligan can gauge her defense’s competence by how much setter Teyah Leinenbach is required to run to pop up the passes.

“The game against Heritage Hills, she wasn’t having to move anywhere. And we played really well that (match),” Milligan said. “That definitely makes a difference, because you can run all kinds of offense, you don’t have to run the same old thing to the left side. If you get a good pass, you have options.”

Next comes Jasper’s task of digging in against more stout competition.

Semistate foe Brownstown Central, which boasts the state’s longest active streak of regional championships with 12 straight, has already knocked off Jasper twice this season at tournaments: 25-13, 25-18 on Sept. 7 and 25-16, 25-14 two weeks later. The Cats don’t discount the sort of challenge Saturday will bring, but they’re cognizant that the first two encounters against Brownstown came before their defense had snapped into shape.

“It’s going to be a challenge. If we can get a block up and just get touches on balls — it’d be great to block for points — but if you can get a block up there that can just get touches on balls so it slows the ball down so our defense does have the chance to get there a little quicker, then that’s what’s ideal,” Milligan said. “They’re going to be hitting at us and they’re going to be hitting at us hard, so we’re going to have to be ready for that.”

Contact Brendan Perkins at bperkins@dcherald.com.

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