High point: Pioneer ‘slides’ past tall Northwestern in 4
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
ROYAL CENTER — The Pioneer volleyball team trailed Northwestern 12-6 in Game 1 of their match at the Pioneer auxiliary gym Thursday when coach Rod Nies called timeout.
They ran a slide on the next play where middle hitter Madison Blickenstaff moved to the right and took an Olivia Brooke set and pounded it into the open court. Pioneer won the next four points.
Pioneer trailed 4-3 in Game 2. They ran another slide for Blickenstaff. That started a run of 12 straight points.
In a battle of two traditional powers, Pioneer was able to use plays like slides enough to beat Northwestern 25-20, 25-13, 19-25, 25-23.
Pioneer has won 14 consecutive Class 1A sectionals. Northwestern has won three straight Class 3A sectionals.
Pioneer led 22-18 in Game 4 before Northwestern came back to tie the game at 23-23 after Pioneer was called for an illegal swing.
But Mandee Weisenburger hit a fading tip from the right antenna that Northwestern couldn’t handle to get the Lady Panthers to match point. A Blickenstaff kill closed out the match.
“We didn’t play well, and they played well,” Pioneer coach Rod Nies said. “They really should have beat us that last set.”
Northwestern listed two seniors on their roster, but neither played. Junior Leah Carter and sophomore McKenna Layden were taller, imposing middle hitters, and they swallowed up any Pioneer attacks that went in the middle of the court.
This became a disappointing trend, according to Nies. Not only were they feeding Northwestern’s block, but they had trouble blocking Northwestern themselves.
“We didn’t hit around their big block,” Nies said. “We managed to find their big blocker in the middle every time we hit the ball out, almost every time. I don’t know if that played into our heads or not. We didn’t do a very good job of blocking them. We knew they were going to Layden and number 20 (Carter), and our blockers were lost every time.”
Pioneer trailed 17-14 in Game 1 before going on an 8-1 run to take a 22-18 lead. Hailey Cripe’s kill after a lunging Brooke dig off the net made it 17-17. Another Cripe kill made it 18-18. A Blickenstaff kill made it 19-18. A Cripe service winner made it 20-18, and two more Blickenstaff kills sandwiched around a Northwestern timeout made it 22-18.
A Blickenstaff kill down the left sideline, a Kennedy Corn ace and a Carter kill error closed out the game.
The Game 2 run started with the slide, but it also included four Brooke aces and two service winners. Freshman Brooklyn Borges had a stuff block during the run, and Carly Morris had a kill. When the run was over, Pioneer led 15-4.
“Their middle block wasn’t getting there on the slide,” Brooke said. “We have a strong outside, so they don’t expect the middle to run a slide. Then you only have a short blocker out there, and that’s normally a kill.”
But Game 3 was different. With Layden spraying attacks all over the floor, a 7-1 Northwestern run in Game 3 turned a 15-15 tie into a 22-16 Northwestern lead.
Part of avoiding the opposing team’s middle hitters is making good passes to Brooke, the setter. That often wasn’t the case, according to Nies. On top of that, they made too many hitting errors.
“We’re trying to get the girls to think and not become predictable,” Nies said. “And when you run that slide, it makes that middle blocker on the other team make a decision: Do I go with the slide hitter, or do I go stay at home with my outside? Right now, we’re just not passing the ball very well for us to run that slide. Because we need to get our middles more involved. Our middles just were nonexistent because we passed so poorly.”
Brooke said that her hitters had their best success when the attacks stayed away from the middle.
“They didn’t have very tall outside blockers, so we kept hitting into their middle block,” Brooke said. “So we need to hit line, and we struggled with hitting line and not making it go inbounds. We hit out of bounds a lot.”