Tough draws, ranked foes stand in the way
Lincoln and North Knox enter this week's volleyball sectionals looking to defend their titles from last season. While the Warriors have a bye, both teams have a difficult path towards repeat championships, and Rivet and South Knox have winnable openers with a powerhouse potentially awaiting in the next round.
The 48th annual IHSAA volleyball state tournament gets started Monday, but three Knox County schools don't play before Thursday.
The Spartans (9-18) open in the Class 2A Forest Park Sectional at 6 p.m. Tuesday against Eastern Greene. North Knox (17-7) competes at Forest Park at 6 p.m. Thursday against Monday's winner between Southridge and Forest Park. Also on Thursday, the Alices (27-4) play Princeton at 7 p.m. in the opening round of the Class 3A Lincoln Sectional. With just four teams in the fold, Rivet (14-12) is off until Saturday, when it takes on the hosts in the Class A North Daviess Sectional at 11 a.m.
The championship at each site is at 7 p.m. Saturday, but Lincoln and North Daviess are playing their semifinals Saturday as well.
The Alices were rolling prior to last weekend, carrying a 14-match win streak with just one loss on the season. But straight set losses to Mount Vernon and Washington last Saturday coupled with a tough sectional draw and a third-straight defeat at Linton Wednesday make Lincoln seem vulnerable.
The draw forces Lincoln to beat three tough opponents in a little over 48 hours. Despite losing to the Hatchets, who the Alices would face in the semifinals, Lincoln owns wins over the Tigers and Golden Arrows, but each of those clubs took a set over the Alices, so nothing is a given.
“It was a rough turn of events to play so poorly in two conference matches (last weekend). We had a lot of distractions with homecoming, and I hoped we would respond with more focus,” Lincoln coach Casey Bowles said. “But we saw what happens when we don't focus and don't pay attention to details. Last Saturday does not define us and will not define our season. We've moved on to our 'new season' with a 0-0 record.
“The sectional is wide open, and (the winner) will be a matter of who shows up and makes the least amount of errors. We have to stay focused each point and work together as a team. One of our strengths is team chemistry. We don't always have to be the best volleyball players, but we can always have the best chemistry and be the hardest-working team every single night.”
Playing key roles for the Alices are senior Darrian Carmean, and juniors Maycee Lange, Callie Foster, Kali Haynes and Livie Koenig. Carmean's an all-around talent with a team-best 410 kills to go with 276 digs. Haynes leads the back row with 475 digs, while Lange is a strong net presence with 314 kills and a team-best 62 blocks. Foster is the setter, posting over 800 assists.
“One of the strengths of this team is the amount of multi-sport athletes we have, and most of them have played in the postseason in many different situations. I think that provides confidence for our girls,” Bowles said. “They also know how much work it took to win last year, and it'll take even more this year. Playing good teams the past two weeks is the best preparation we can have. Success is fun, but you have to pay the price of hard work and improve every single day.”
Lincoln ended its losing streak Thursday with a four-set win over North Knox. While going into the postseason with a loss isn't ideal for the Warriors, they did get a favorable draw by avoiding No. 1 Barr-Reeve in the first two rounds. North Knox coach Tammy Meurer admitted that the Vikings are favored, but noted she feels good about her team.
“When it comes to tournament time, anything can happen. We believe we have a really good draw. We have to approach the sectional with confidence and have no regrets,” Meurer said.
Senior Emilee Organ and sophomore Hannah Saucerman have been all-around players for the Warriors. Organ is more dominant at the net, while Saucerman specializes in defense and setting, but both have proven they can do it all. Seniors Grace Yochum and Megan Cross, and junior Matty Hoffman are key at the net, senior Mallory Earhart shares setting duties with Saucerman, and seniors Mercedes Harbin and Sabrina Carson fill in in the back row.
“It took us a while to build our team chemistry this season. We didn't have everyone somewhat healthy until our 19th match. We've been plagued by injuries, however we started to peak a couple of weeks ago,” Meurer said. “As a coach, you don't want your team to peak too soon, and we were starting to peak at the ideal time. But this week we've slipped a little. We're coming off some big wins, so it's a bit of a letdown. I'm confident we will get back on track. We've talked extensively about my concerns, and they're aware of what they need to do.”
South Knox suffered a straight-set loss to the Thunderbirds earlier in the season, but Eastern has just five wins, so it's definitely a matchup the Spartans can handle. Unfortunately for South Knox, waiting in the next round would be either Barr-Reeve or Linton, traditional powers that popped the Spartans in three sets in regular-season meetings.
Senior Hannah Ivers is South Knox's biggest weapon, as she leads the team in digs and kills. Junior Lauren Loudermilk and sophomore Kaylee Parrish split the setting position, sophomore Leah Ellermann plays all around, and senior Lanea Holscher and junior Hallie Kirk are key at the net.
Rivet appeared to get a favorable draw, but coach Jill Ballinger pointed out there are pluses and minuses. While taking over a week off could lead to rust, it could also help the Patriots heal up after injuries have affected the team all season. North Daviess is a winnable matchup, as Rivet has already defeated the Cougars twice, but Ballinger noted it can be difficult to face a team a third time.
“It's tough to play a team three teams, and they've played us close. It won't be a cakewalk. But if we had to pick one of the three other teams to play, we wanted to draw (North Daviess),” she said. “Loogootee is a very good team, and Shoals is improved.”
Ballinger added that the third-ranked Lions are the favorite.
Rivet's led by its five seniors, Macee Hamilton, Hannah Schneider, Bella Atkinson, Livia Trent and Maddy Allen, though injury and illness have slowed down Atkinson and Allen this year. Junior Lauren Carie gives the team size at the net, junior April Tripp plays all around and freshman Kenadee Frey has been a nice addition at setter and other spots.
“These girls are making hustle plays that a year ago they weren't even thinking about making,” Ballinger said. “They're a lot of fun to watch, especially in tight matches. I've told them, I get hard on them when they don't play the way I feel they can play. But I wasn't the one to set that bar. They did, and they've raised it high enough to where I expect a lot out of them. The time off could help, and some good days of practice would really help.”