Editor's Note: Due to earlier deadlines, this story didn't run in Thursday's Herald-Argus.
NEW CARLISLE — Tied one set apiece and down 17-22 in an all-important third set, the New Prairie girls volleyball team needed to make something happen quick.
Three straight points followed, forcing Penn to take a timeout to regroup. A fairly full Cougars crowd got to its feet and chanted, “Let’s go Cougars,” on repeat during the intermission. Its team had the momentum and needed to continue on that path.
The Kingsmen scored a quick point right after, but then junior Elise Swistek let loose a vicious spike, senior Katie Hancock recovered a nasty spike of her own for another point, and Swistek served the ball for an ace to put the Cougars up 24-23.
All the momentum was going the Cougars way in a set that can put a team either in a comfortable spot just one set away from victory, or into a challenging hole, needing to win back-to-back sets to avoid defeat.
However, New Prairie allowed two points to Penn to lose the set. It was a brutal blow for a team that had so much steam just a couple minutes before, but head coach Jordan Staus was proud of how her team fought to make that set a close one.
The Cougars started off the fourth and final set slow, due to being a bit gassed from Penn's quick style of play. They fought back late to make the set intriguing, but ended up falling 25-23, 18-25, 26-24, 25-18 in the end.
"It was great seeing us come back like that (in the third and fourth sets)," Staus said. "But we made a lot of errors. I think that was kind of the deciding factor between the win and the loss, especially in games one and three where they were so tight. Volleyball is a game of errors, though. It's about trying to get the other team to make the error first... I think we were a little gassed, too, because we weren't used to playing against teams of that speed."
New Prairie (19-6, 8-2 Northern Indiana Conference) typically relies on Hancock and Swistek, a Valparaiso commit, to overpower teams offensively with their ability to precisely spike the ball with great force, making it difficult for the opposition to defend.
The duo did just that, but the Kingsmen (18-6, 6-0) seemed to be in the right position nearly every time either Hancock or Swistek hit the ball, thwarting sound offensive possession after sound offensive possession for New Prairie.
"Their service was phenomenal," Staus said. "It's frustrating, but I would rather play against teams like that every single day of the week; and win or lose, we'd get better that way rather than playing a team that's not as challenging. Teams like (Penn) make you better. They challenge you, they push you. The girls said they were excited to play them because it was faster and were used to seeing that from club ball and haven't seen it in a while."
Swistek racked up 24 kills and Haley Robinson 10 for the Cougars, who have the Warsaw Tiger Invite on Saturday to continue to improve before the sectional begins in two weeks.
Penn 25-18-26-25, New Prairie 23-25-24-18
The Cougars' Elise Swistek had 24 kills.