MISHAWAKA — After surviving a four-set test from Plymouth at the start of the season, La Porte’s volleyball team was ready for the same against the Pilgrims in a sectional semifinal.
Those concerns were quickly put to rest.
The Slicers asserted themselves early and often, cruising over Plymouth in three sets, 25-12, 25-17, 25-13, in a Class 4A Mishawaka Sectional semifinal Saturday morning.
“We just really came prepared and ready to play today,” La Porte coach Cassie Holmquest said. “The girls were excited. The whole bus ride they were singing. They were pretty amped up to play and win this game.”
In Saturday’s second semifinal, Michigan City outlasted the host Cavemen in a thrilling five games, 25-22, 16-25, 25-16, 15-25, 15-12, to advance to the sectional final.
The Wolves prevailed in going the distance, jumping ahead 4-0 in the last set and never trailing, sealing the win by three points. City captured a hard-fought match, despite being short-handed due to a few players being unable to play.
“I was really nervous because things just didn't start off right,” City coach Jim Kaufman said, referring to a Wolves' player leaving her jerseys at the school. “So that changed the whole lineup. One of my girls was gone the whole week, so she wasn't going to play in this match. Jess (Jessica McShane) stepped in and did a great job in the middle.
"Everybody stepped up and did what they needed to do.”
In Set 1, the Slicers trailed just briefly at the start, then took command. They built a 13-5 lead and pulled away.
In the second set, La Porte was down 9-7, but it reeled off a 7-0 run to go ahead 14-9 by pouncing on the Pilgrims’ mistakes. After that, the Slicers weren’t challenged the rest of that set.
The third set was similar to the first, as Plymouth (19-12) had an early advantage. That was short-lived, however, as the Slicers went ahead 7-6 and never trailed the rest of the way.
La Porte sophomore Aniya Kennedy was particularly effective offensively and had several thunderous kills. The Pilgrims really didn't have an answer for her.
“Aniya was able to hit over the block,” Holmquest said. “We went to her a lot, which we usually do, but her being able to see the block and hit over it or around it was key.”
Besides Kennedy, the Slicers' Paige Conklin was also reliable at the setter position, while senior Annalise Warnock was stout in both the back row and at the net.
Warnock guided her squad with 12 kills, besides eight digs, and Cheyanne Seymour had 10 kills. Kennedy and Conklin both finished with eight kills, with Lexi Joyner having seven kills. Conklin recorded six digs and 23 assists, and Olivia Voelker posted a team-high 18 digs.
“She looked really good,” Holmquest added of Warnock. “Her defense today was good. We really focused on defense Friday in practice, hoping it would carry over to today, and it did.”
Senior Reece Shirley was gigantic at the net for the Wolves, seemingly earning a big point whenever her team needed it versus Mishawaka (15-17).
With the match tied at a set apiece, City overcame an early five-point deficit to capture the critical third set. That allowed it to take command of the match, at least momentarily. The Cavemen responded by taking control early in Set 4 and rolling to a 10-point decision to force a decisive fifth set.
In pivotal Set 5, after the Wolves built the four-point margin, Mishawaka rallied to tie it 5-5. City didn’t relinquish the lead, though, and went ahead 9-6. The Cavemen cut the deficit to one a few times, but never knotted it again. With the Wolves clinging to a 12-11 cushion, they won three of the next four points, including kills by Amani Torrance-Worlds and Aaliyah Jones, to claim the last set and the match after Shirley’s kill. That set off a wild celebration on the court.
“We kind of really had a goal in the beginning to start off strong and end strong,” Shirley said. “That's kind of what we did. We really worked as a team and had a lot of energy compared to other nights.
"We didn't have the best season compared to previous years, but going to the sectional final feels pretty good after a long year."
Shirley tallied a team-high 13 kills for the Wolves, to go along with 20 digs, 16 assists and a pair of aces, while Micah Ruhe racked up a City-best 25 digs. Ellery Dolezal finished with 14 digs and 10 kills, and Alexa Sparks had 10 digs, seven kills, 15 assists and two aces. Jones added five kills and four solo blocks.