BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
ROYAL CENTER –- Can a high school volleyball team that has won 14 consecutive sectionals be nervous?
But the nerves for the Pioneer volleyball team lasted only so long on their home floor in their Class 1A, Sectional 52 quarterfinal against Southwood Thursday.
The No. 3 Lady Panthers were able to overcome their nerves and beat the Lady Knights 19-25, 25-8, 25-8, 25-10 and earn a date with Lakeland Christian in the semifinals at 11 a.m. Saturday.
No. 5 Northfield will play Caston in the second semifinal, and the winners return at 7 p.m. for the sectional final.
Madison Blickenstaff led Pioneer with 15 kills, and Hailey Cripe and eight kills, 12 digs and six aces that alternated between defying gravity and obeying it to the extreme.
Olivia Brooke added eight kills, 21 assists and 12 digs.
Mackenzie Walker had a team-high 22 digs, and Emma Nokvaski had 15.
Pioneer coach Rod Nies said he’s known Southwood coach Tom Finicle a long time. He said he knew Southwood would be ready to play.
“He’s a hell of a coach, and I told my girls he’s going to have them ready for us,” Nies said. “And he did. They came out, they executed, and their ball control was really good. It was one of those things where they caught us napping, and we didn’t take care of the ball. A couple of my girls, hell, they had more passes up in the stands than they did towards the net.”
Pioneer led 10-6 in Game 2 before closing the game out on a 15-2 run.
Olivia Brooke had a stuff block and then a kill. Southwood called timeout as the Pioneer lead reached 13-6.
Then came a Blickenstaff kill, then a Blickenstaff half-roll shot, then a Brooke lefty tip and then a Cripe ace.
Cripe missed a serve, but Blickenstaff put a kill off the block, Mackenzie Robinson dropped in an ace, and Blickenstaff placed a deep roll. It was 20-7, and Southwood called another timeout. The game ended on a Brooke service winner and a Brooke ace.
With Brooke, Blickenstaff, Corn and Brooklyn Borges as blockers, Southwood often had to thread a needle when trying to attack.
“A lot of teams will single-block in the middle, and we like to double-block every shot that comes over,” Nies said. “And there are even some times with a triple-block if the individual is really on her game and a really good all-around player. We’ve got some decent size this year. You saw in the first set we can’t pass very well so we might as well throw up a big block. So that’s what we did.”
They jumped out to a 9-2 lead in Game 3 and then closed it out on a 10-0 run. In that closing run, Brooke put down on a tip after a Southwood overpass, Kennedy Corn had a stuff block, and Cripe had three aces. One of the aces came on a pop-up short floater that barely crept over the net.
“My serve is a float serve, so at the end of it, it’s going to tail off, so you kind of have to react to the ball before it gets to you,” Cripe said. “You have to be thinking where it's going to float. I just changed my serve three days ago. I changed my approach because I was serving everything out of bounds, so I gave myself more room, and now I’m able to hit my ball a lot harder with more opaque and make it float more.”
A Brooke kill off another Southwood overpass and a Blickenstaff kill closed out the game.
In Game 4, Pioneer jumped out to a 9-3 lead and then closed the match with seven straight points. Robinson had two aces as part of that run.
Southwood got only five points on their serve in their final three games.
Pioneer hadn’t played a competitive match in a week since beating Twin Lakes in their regular season finale.
“We were probably a little rusty,” Nies said. “I don’t know why we would be a little intimidated, but my girls looked like they were intimidated a little bit. You know, Southwood came to play. They played with a lot of energy. But I was really proud of my girls on how they rebounded after that first set.”
Said Cripe: “We were just told to get our butts in gear and start playing volleyball. Because at the beginning, we were really flat. We weren’t on our toes. We weren’t hitting like we were. And in the last three sets, we picked it up, we started getting good passes, which led to good sets and then good hits. And we started with our serving, and I just think everything came together in the last three sets.”
PIONEER DEF. SOUTHWOOD, 19-25, 25-8, 25-8, 25-10
Brooklyn Borges - 4 kills; Emma Novaski - 15 digs; Hailey Cripe - 6 aces, 8 kills, 12 digs; Kennedy Corn - 1 kill; Mackenzie Robinson - 5 aces, 1 assist, 4 digs; Mackenzie Walker - 1 ace, 2 kills, 2 assists, 22 digs; Madison Blickenstaff - 15 kills, 10 digs; Olivia Brooke - 3 aces, 8 kills, 21 assists, 12 digs