PLYMOUTH — When senior New Prairie setter Shaye Tolch props the ball up, there's a good chance it's heading to junior outside hitter and Northern Indiana Conference Most Valuable Player, Elise Swistek.
Tolch did just that early and often against Bellmont, but to no avail in a 3-1 (19-25, 14-25, 25-17, 11-25) loss in the Class 3A Plymouth Semistate Saturday afternoon.
"They played really well defensively tonight," said New Prairie head coach Jordan Staus. "I mean, we made some errors ourselves as well, but they just played an all-around great game on defense."
Feeding Swistek, freshman Haley Robinson and senior Katie Hancock typically spells success for the Cougars, with all three of them more than capable of taking a game over with their powerful, precise hitting.
The best way to counter such an offensive attack is, simply, by getting in the right positions to make key blocks. The Squaws did just that against New Prairie's trio with a trio of their own in sophomore Meg Saalfrank, senior Sarah Noonan and sophomore Avery Ball. It didn't matter if the Cougars delivered a punishing hit — Saalfrank, Noonan and Ball were constantly in the right spots to at the very least put a hand on everything, making it difficult to score early on.
Bellmont's pesky defense helped it jump out to a large, 18-7 lead in the first set, as well as go on a 14-2 run in the second set to take a commanding 2-0 lead.
"It's really frustrating (when they can block that well)," Swistek said. "Because then I have to find a different way to get a kill and I can't always hit the ball. Like, sometimes I have to tip it even when I want to hit it, but I'll do whatever I think is best to help our team."
New Prairie gained some serious momentum in the third set, however, taking it by eight points. It went on three runs of at least 3-0 margins throughout it, looking like it had just regained some life after dropping consecutive sets to start the match. Swistek, Robinson and Hancock were rolling, looking like an unstoppable force.
It's interesting how timeouts can affect a team though. A hefty break occurred in between the third and fourth sets, seeming to relinquish whatever momentum the Cougars may have built up in a dominant third set.
They dropped the first three points and played catch-up the rest of the time, but couldn't string enough consecutive points together to come back in the fourth set, ending their season at the same spot in the tournament as last year, in the state semifinals.
"I'm so proud of my team this year and all of our accomplishments," Hancock said. "We achieved a lot of what we hoped to at the beginning of the year. I'll miss playing with and seeing my teammates every day. They've been my favorite team and I've considered them as family and my best friends."
Failing to advance to the state finals for a second consecutive year surely is disappointing for Staus and her team, especially with how much the team bonded with one another. That all starts with the seniors, who will be difficult to replace.
But the Cougars will return the Swistek, a promising underclassman hitter in Robinson; and a bevy of other solid contributors, including starting libero Josie Troy and role player Ellie Michiaels. With so many returning starters that know what it's like to advance this far in the postseason, New Prairie is poised to make a similar run in 2020.
"We have to work a lot harder on defense and serve receive and placing the ball next year," Swistek said. "But I hope to go far next year. We'll definitely miss the seniors that we're losing though."