Story by Jim Horvath
Photos by Ryan Kaczmarski
As the 2014 high school volleyball regular season begins to wind down, Lutheran West head coach Stephanie Rivera knows what lies ahead for her state-ranked Longhorns.
For the Fairview Warriors, it's all about a young team improving and learning how to finish.
Before a packed house at The Rock, Lutheran West shook off an early challenge from the visiting Warriors and rolled to a 25-11, 25-15, 25-16 win. In the process, the Longhorns upped their overall record to 17-2 overall and remained unbeaten in the Patriot Athletic Conference Stripes Division at 13-0.
"We've got to focus on every game," said Rivera, whose team was ranked No. 17 in Division III in this week's OHSVCA Poll. "We've talked about that a lot.
"We've talked about the little things: Every pass, every day focusing on every play and making sure you better each ball, absolutely," she said.
Fairview, which was still without injured outside hitter Sammie Anderson, matched Lutheran West point-for-point in the first set. A kill from freshman Hannah Minnich and a pair of Longhorn hitting errors had the Warriors within a point at 9-8.
A Sarah Haagensen kill had the Warriors close at 12-10. But a kill from Lutheran West sophomore Margaux Thompson, a pair of Fairview hitting errors and a block kill from Abby DeSimpelare and Jessica Gavlak had the home team on a 4-0 run.
Even after a Fairview timeout, the Longhorns continued their run, pushing the score out to 21-10. Three of those next five points were off aces served up by Thompson.
"That's kind of been our battle all year," said Fairview head coach Mary Kate Evans, whose team fell to 7-11 overall and 5-8 in the PAC Stripes Division.
"We come out really strong and play well during those first 1-12 points. Then all of a sudden, it's like we don't have anything left," Evans said. "We'll come out in the next set and do exactly the same thing. We're still trying to get over that middle-of-the-game hump and turn that finish on.
"That's where you see how young we really are and how the injuries have hurt us," she said.
In the second set, Evans' squad remained close early on, with a service ace from Haagensen pulling the Warriors to within four at 11-7. But a kill from junior outside hitter Rachel O'Connor ignited a 7-2 run that was capped off on a kill from senior middle Anne Kennedy.
Kennedy had three big kills down the stretch, including two in the final three points to close out the second set for the Longhorns.
In the third set, the Warriors held a slim 11-10 lead. But the Longhorns went on their biggest tun of the night, using a 14-5 stretch to close out the match. All of this came with Anderson, a senior and an All-PAC selection, watching from the bench.
"She's been out with an injury, and there's no timetable on her return," Evans said. "She's a big part of our team. She's an all-conference player and a leader for us out on the court.
"We've also got two young setters out there who are learning to play at this level. It's a hard thing for them to step into that role. It's not easy for them. They're doing a fine job, we just have to get them to believe they can do it," she said.
Junior Gabby Szoradi, one of Fairview's two setters, dished out 11 assists. Haagensen had seven kills and nine digs, while Minnich had five kills.
For Lutheran West, Thompson and O'Connor led the offense with nine kills each, while Kennedy and Gavlak added seven and six, respectively. DeSimpelare dished out 32 assists and served up six aces.
Thompson and libero Kara Thomas each had six aces, with Thomas recording 14 digs.
"It was a big night for the girls with the Homecoming activities," Rivera said.
"And Fairview's a good team, regardless of whether they're injured or not. They're always going to play great defense,and they're always going to bring the ball back. They're never going to quit," she said.
Rivera also said her team was able to regain its collective focus despite Homecoming Week and Fairview's early challenge.
"That's been the theme of our season," Rivera said. "No matter what happens, even if we start out slow, there's no panic.
"We relax and get the job done on the next ball. That's paid off for us," Rivera said. "They're used to being in that position at times, but they fight through it and get right back on top."
Lutheran West has three PAC matches remaining on the schedule. On Monday, the Longhorns host Clearview, then come back the very next night for a home match with Brooklyn. Next Thursday will be the regular season finale, with a big road match at Columbia.
Rivera acknowledged her team could ill afford to look too far ahead.
"We can't have any letups," she said. "I think we need to keep working out hard. You want to keep sprinting, you want to keep running. You don't want to think that because it's the end of the season, you don't have to condition.
"I think it's about staying aggressive and going after teams. Even if you're down by a point, you have to stay aggressive and go after it. And they know my favorite quote: 'Be where you are while you're there, do what you're doing while you're doing it.
"Homework is big now, and Homecoming is going on. You've got to focus on what you need to get done when you need to get it done so you can keep all your ducks in a row," she added.
Fairview will host Columbia on Monday and Oberlin on Tuesday before finishing its PAC regular season at Brooklyn Thursday night.
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Click on the camera below to view Ryan's photos from this match: