Lady Zs make big ‘Leap’ after slow start to win sectional
BY VAL TSOUTSOURIS
Sports Editor, RTC
BREMEN –- When a team wins five sectionals in six years, it might seem routine.
This has not, however, been a routine season for the Rochester volleyball team.
They endured a three-week shutdown from Aug. 3-24. Then each player had to complete 10 practices in order to become eligible.
The season finally began with a loss to Plymouth on Sept. 8. Then came another loss two days later to Southwood.
Still, they rebounded to win the 22nd sectional title in school history Saturday, topping Bremen 25-21, 25-14, 25-10 to win the Class 2A, Sectional 35 title. It marked the second straight year the Lady Zs beat the Lady Lions on Bremen’s home floor to win the sectional title.
RHS is 16-7.
“They’re definitely tougher for all of the adversity that they have had to endure this year,” RHS coach Erin Leap said. “We don’t like COVID. COVID is not fun. There are a lot of teams dropping out of the tournament because of it. … It makes us appreciate everything even a little bit more. It makes everything matter a little bit more. So I definitely think that they’ve grown from all of the things that have been thrown at us this year.”
Some players also acknowledged the slow start.
“So at first we got off to a rocky start,” junior Kylie Houston said. “Usually we’d have Pioneer to get us started and then get into our league play. We started 0-3 down, and then we picked it up as the season went on, and we became a stronger team.”
The only teams that have beaten the Lady Zs since Sept. 17 are Northfield and Pioneer, both of whom were ranked in the top five in Class 1A going into the postseason.
“The season started off a little difficult because we didn’t get to play that much because of the coronavirus,” sophomore Alexa Kouskousakis said. “But once we got into the groove of things, we were good.”
RHS coach Erin Leap switched from a two-setter system to a one-setter system within that first week. Molly Conley became the lone setter, and Chloe Harris was moved to the back row.
“I think that made a big difference,” senior Hannah Houston said.
Said Kylie Houston: “Chloe’s a defensive player. That’s where she needed to be.”
Harris described the season as “wild.”
“If we would have had the two weeks of school normally and they didn’t get canceled, I think we would have been a little more prepared,” Harris said. “We would have come out with a win against Southwood and Plymouth. But we were just so unprepared. We didn’t have any time to practice.”
The late start to the season also affected the camaraderie the team prides itself in.
“We didn’t get to do a lot of team bonding,” senior libero Dalanie Chipps said.
Senior Kaitlin Rogers, who had 35 kills combined in two sectional matches, said the key was after the losses to Plymouth and Southwood.
“I would say the turning point was after the Plymouth game and after Southwood,” Rogers said. “We changed our whole lineup. Everyone just was in their final spots. We all worked at it really hard in those rotations, so I think (the) turning point was after the Southwood game.”
Of all the teams at Rochester High School, there might not be a sport in which more former players return to root on their contemporaries than volleyball.
For example, former players like Alivia Riegle, Christina Towne and Olivia Smith were at Bremen Saturday to cheer on the Lady Zs during their 25-21, 25-14, 25-10 win over Bremen in the Class 2A, Sectional 35 final.
“Since we played with them for two years, it’s just nice to have their faces there in the crowd to help cheer us on,” junior Kylie Houston said.
Houston and her older sister Hannah are teammates. While Hannah is in her third year on the varsity, this is Kylie’s first year as a full-time varsity player. Hannah is known for hitting and blocking while Kylie has established herself as a top defender.
“It’s definitely interesting,” Kylie Houston said. “It goes a lot better than what I might think. We get along really well.”
Are you as supportive when you are not playing volleyball?
“Less,” Kylie quipped.
“We try to be but not quite as much,” Hannah said.
Kylie Houston is No. 1 in RHS’ serving order.
“She’s got a really good serve. You just don’t know where it’s going to go,” Leap said. “And you don’t know where it’s going to drop. It’s hard, and she can just place it really well. She leads us in aces, and she’s doing a phenomenal job in the back row too. She’s grown so much from Day 1 of the season to today. She’s so scrappy, so I love having her back there.”
Kous-ing a commotion
Kouskousakis, who has played volleyball since she was a sixth-grader, has shown a variety of skills this year. She got her first extended action when Carlee Blackburn went down with an injury. That put her in more of a hitting role.
Then she said she filled in when Kenzie Bradley was unable to play. In the sectional final, she had to fill in at setter when Molly Conley went down with an apparent ankle injury.
“It takes a lot of practice to learn where you’re going on the court for each position,” Kouskousakis said.
Kouskousakis also got to play in the sectional final with fellow sophomore Kylie Coleman. The team’s multiple injuries forced Coleman into the front row in the sectional final.
“I think she did a great job,” Kouskousakis said of Coleman. “She adapted well to my sets because we play on JV together. It was kind of easier because I had someone who I’ve been playing with for awhile.”
‘Tis better to receive
The Lady Zs might have looked uncomfortable in their serves received against Bremen, but that got better as the match progressed.
Leap said it was strength all day Saturday RHS started their day with a 25-14, 25-14, 25-14 win in the semifinals over LaVille.
“I felt like we passed really well in our first match this morning,” Leap said. “But yeah, we started off a little rocky but reeled it in and we were able to get control of it.”
Said Harris: “We improved in our serve-received a lot. I think we were just nervous.”
Chipps said a bad pre-match warm-up led to a slow start in the match.
“Their serves weren’t very hard,” Chipps said. “They were spot-serving really well.”
Practice, practice, practice
RHS played 21 matches in a 32-day span from Sept. 8-Oct. 10. They capped that busy span by going 3-0 and winning the Twin Lakes Invitational.
They received a bye into the semifinals per the draw, so they had an entire week off to practice prior to the sectional.
“It was long,” Leap said with a laugh after describing the week. “It’s a long week when you don’t have any matches to play. And the girls get tired of practicing. It gets to a point where it’s kind of monotonous, and you just want to play. You just want to go and play somebody else besides yourself on the other side. They were definitely ready for a match (on Saturday), and it showed definitely this morning and tonight.”
Rochester volleyball seniors, from left, Carlee Blackburn, Molly Conley, Dalanie Chipps, Chloe Harris, Kaitlin Rogers and Hannah Houston pose with the Class 2A, Sectional 35 trophy after the team’s 25-21, 25-14, 25-10 win over Bremen on Bremen’s home court Saturday. RHS has won two straight sectionals and five sectionals in the last six years. RHS plays North Judson in a Class 2A regional semifinal at LaVille at 10:30 a.m. Saturday. If they win, they play in the regional final at 7 p.m.
The Rochester volleyball coaching staff celebrates with the sectional trophy. From left – JV coach Renee Durkes, coach Erin Leap, assistant coach Sarah Daulton.