Arguably the best prep volleyball program in history, Louisville Assumption, limped into the New Castle Invitational on the heels of three consecutive losses and without the services of its star outside hitter Miranda Elpers, who is yet to return from surgery on a torn anterior-cruciate ligament.
Still, the name Assumption is worth a few intimidation points alone, and that certainly proved to be the case Saturday. The Rockets swept overmatched Class 3A No. 5 Central and followed by beating a team with arguably better talent in 4A No. 2 Avon in straight sets, 25-20, 25-19, to secure a berth in the finals.
An undefeated New Castle team, dealing with its own adversity in the aftermatch of a coaching change two weeks into the season, opened by sweeping 2A No. 3 Southwood. The Trojans then withstood a second set letdown to beat 4A No. 7 Floyd Central 25-19, 14-25, 15-8 in the semifinals to set up an intriguing final between two nationally ranked teams that actually lived up to the billing.
The PrepVolleyball.com No. 7 Trojans took the first set. The formerly No. 1 and currently No. 22 Rockets answered right back in the second and set the stage for a dramatic conclusion. Assumption staved off three match points, but host New Castle refused to let a signature win slip away and pulled out a 25-22, 17-25, 16-14 victory.
“Even though they’ve dropped down in the country, and they’re obviously not No. 1 anymore, I think it boosted our confidence so much just because going through all of that crap, we were kind of low and in the dumps and stuff, but coming out and beating them and coming together as a team just made us that much better,” New Castle setter Kiley Lingenfelter said.
Legendary Assumption coach Ron Kordes credited Lingenfelter for moving the ball around to her hitters, in particular her middles Payton Anderson and Laryssa Welch, to neutralize a block geared up to contain New Castle standout Lauryn Gillis. But on the pivotal point of the match with the score tied at 14-all, Lingenfelter set the reigning Indiana Gatorade Player of the Year, who skied in the air and thundered the ball down for a momentum-turning kill.
“I think I jumped a little higher than I usually do, but I don’t really think about the points when I’m swinging,” said Gillis, who finished with 12 kills against Assumption and 34 overall in the invite. “I just think about going hard and attacking just like any other point.”
The Gillis kill halted the Rockets, who fended off the previous three match points to knot the score at 14-all. Gillis put the Trojans up and on the next point the Rockets hit the ball long to seal the match.
New Castle players huddled in celebration, a few let out screams, and they then posed for pictures as their parents snapped away with their cell phones.
The Trojans (13-0) passed their first true test with Mike Dodrill as their interim head coach. New Castle won its first six matches in straight sets against inferior opponents. Saturday, the Trojans beat three ranked teams and pulled out two of those victories when pushed to a decisive set.
Dodrill said he delivered a simple message to his players before the third set against Assumption.
“It was more for pride than anything,” Dodrill said. “I told them you’ve worked far too hard to fall short.”
Dodrill won his share of matches against Assumption when he assisted at Burris, but this marked his first against the national powerhouse as the head man.
“It’s OK,” Dodrill said with a grin. “1-0 against Ron (Kordes) is OK.”