Wildcats look toward volleyball post-season

Nic Antaya/The Herald
The Wildcats learned this weekend during the Jasper Invitational just how much further they still need to go in order to work their way toward the best volleyball they can play as a collective. The team swept through its first three matches before falling to Castle in the championship match.

BY JONATHAN SAXON
jsaxon@dcherald.com

JASPER — The Jasper volleyball team has had a solid year by all tangible indicators and measures. The Wildcats got out to a slow 0-2 start, but have put together a string of solid multi-win game streaks, and have only lost back-to-back matches one other time this fall. All of the matches and time on the court helped the team come together and work better as a unit, but there is still a good bit of space for growth as they look toward the end of their regular-season schedule and sectionals.

The Wildcats used a nice window to keep their momentum going in the form of Saturday’s Jasper Invitational. The team easily swept through its first three matches against Evansville Harrison (25-9, 25-15), Sullivan (25-19, 25-10) and Evansville Central (25-11, 25-12). But the Cats ran into an old foe in the form of Castle, and fell to the Knights 2-0 (25-18, 25-17) in the championship match, and learned just how much further they still need to go in order to work their way toward the best volleyball they can play as a collective.

Castle (21-1, 5-0) got off to a strong start in the first game, jumping out to a quick 5-1 lead. The Knights used their length and strong setups to establish their offense early, and crowded the net to stifle any attempts by the Wildcats (19-7, 4-0) to send back their own volleys. Junior outside hitter Reagan Egbert started to come on strong as she netted the next three kills for Jasper, but it wasn’t long before Castle issued its response in the form of senior middle blocker Adrienne Bryant, senior outside hitter Jessica Nunge and freshman defensive specialist Keira Moore.

Junior outside hitters Riley Merder and Meredith Hilgefort started to come on strong for Jasper, and sparked a few solid kills for the Wildcats. But eventually the back-and-forth simply went in Castle’s favor. The Knights put together a 6-2 run late in the first game to put the Wildcats on their heels, and even with Jasper’s last four-kill scoring barrage, Nunge was able to knockdown the last two kills Castle needed to ice the first game, 25-18.

In the second match, the Wildcats were able to get off to a better start as Merder and senior middle hitter Taylor Wildman came together to get the first two kills for Jasper on the way to an early 3-1 run. But Nunge and junior setter Hannah Rae Kivett worked the Knights back into control of the proceedings. 

However, Jasper was determined not to go down without a fight, and traded shots with Castle for an 11-11 tie. But Castle caught fire once again after that, and manufactured a 9-2 run to dominate the contest. The Wildcats mustered some kills to keep fighting until the end, but the Knights went on to seal the match with a 25-17 win and earn the title of Jasper Invitational champions.

Jasper coach Liz Milligan was not too high on taking home the runner-up title, but she didn’t take away anything from Castle. She said she saw some positive things in her girls’ performance that they can use to finish out the rest of the season and put themselves in a good position when sectional games begin in October.

“I’d be lying if I said I was happy,” she said. “But Castle is a very good volleyball team. We would have had to play an exceptional volleyball game to beat them today. Were we exceptional? No. But I think we did a lot of good things. Think the team is heading in a good direction heading into the postseason. But we need to keep battling and get better.”

This is the third time the Wildcats have faced the Knights this season. And while they have yet to get a win against them this year, the Jasper players believe they can still take something from the matches that will help them avenge their last loss to them in last year’s sectional final.

“We know if we keep working, we can face off with them better at sectional,” Egbert said. “The first time we played them, we came out really tough, we took them into five (games) that time. Last time we saw them, it was a little rough, but we definitely improved since then.”

“Before the game, we knew were going to have to have a ton of energy,” Merder added. “We had a good run at the beginning. We kind of let the energy die down, and we can’t do that against Castle. We’re going to work on that and, hopefully, we’ll see them again at sectionals.”

Milligan was pleased with the overall performance of the Wildcats, as they swept their way to the championship match. She said they were able to be more aggressive on offense, which will only help them become a more efficient team over the course of their final four games. She is still going to encourage the girls to get better with their serving, their defensive schemes, and using better passes to set up their hitters. Overall, there was a lot to like in the coach’s estimation, but the team is far from a finished product. 

“I think we’re getting better with our mental toughness,” she said. “Heading into the post-season, we’re getting better at that. When we’re in the system, we can run an offense, we can put the ball down. But it’s the things in between that — defense, focus, energy and overall excitement the team needs to bring in order for us to do well. Hopefully those little things can turn into big things, and we can finish the season and get us a sectional.”

 




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