Hard-hitting up front

Annalise Warnock

MISHAWAKA — It didn't matter who was playing in the front row of La Porte volleyball's 25-12, 25-12, 25-8 sweep of South Bend Adams Thursday night.

Whether it was seniors Lexi Joyner and Annalise Warnock, or junior Paige Conklin, or even sophomore Aniya Kennedy, the Slicer girls up front played a large role in their Class 4A Mishawaka Sectional victory, advancing to play Plymouth at 10 a.m. Saturday.

La Porte's hitters constantly had the Eagles' girls on the ground with a dismayed look on their faces. The Slicers have done this to countless opponents throughout the season and rely heavily on overpowering their opponents to see success.

"I'm really pleased with how the back row was able to set up (our hitters) today," said La Porte coach Cassie Holmquest. "Because of them we were able to do a lot of good things offensively."

Despite the dominance on the scoreboard and as the eye test suggested, Holmquest never showed much emotion. She rarely clapped and looked concerned more often than she did pleased. It was really more of a focused, determined look on her face, though, exuding a vibe that she expects this kind of performance from her team. 

And even though the score might spell the story of a heavily one-sided game, Holmquest wasn't pleased with every facet of her team's game.

"There's a few things we're going to have to work on in practice, for sure," Holmquest said. "Serving, serve receive, returning tips and running our plays. But overall, we did what we needed to do tonight."

In the postseason, every game is win-or-go-home, and in order to play the best brand of volleyball possible, it's important to find problems to fix even in lopsided victories such as the Slicers' romp Thursday.

"Tonight was a good tune-up game for us," Warnock said. "We expected to win tonight and that took a lot of pressure off of it. We just went out there and had fun and now we're moving on. I think we've got to run our plays a little better, though, on Saturday."

For the majority of Michigan City's 25-19, 25-13, 25-10 sweep of South Bend Riley, Wolves coach Jim Kaufman stood disappointed with both hands on his hips.

His team was barely scraping by a seemingly-inferior Wildcats squad, and not because they were getting out-played. Whether it were errant serves or a lack of communication defensively, self-made mistakes were far more common than he would have liked. It's an issue Kaufman has stressed that he has wanted to fix this entire year, and seeing it happen in the postseason was displeasing for him.

"We had 13 errors in the first set, and they had 19 points," Kaufman said. "Our problem is we'll make mistakes and they compound and the other team will go on a run to either make things close or takes us out of it. We really need to work on moving past errors as quickly as possible and getting our serves in. When we serve hard and get past mistakes quickly, we play really well."

A typically-reliable senior Reece Shirley was a bit off offensively, as the Wolves' leader and arguably best player was just a little wayward on most of her hits to start the night. She did have a bold, set-clinching tip to the back-right of the court to secure the first set for Michigan City, helping provide some confidence for second two sets.

Luckily for the Wolves, though, senior Aaliyah Jones was on her game offensively all night. She used her best asset in her power to her advantage time and time again, jumping up high in the air to spike the ball at the Riley defenders at a very difficult angle.

Jones and Shirley have been backbones of this Michigan City team, and they know that. Because the Wolves are so reliant on the play of their two captains, they know that they'll need to focus and step it up in a big way in order to get by Mishawaka on Saturday on the Cavemen's home court.

"We just need to be more focused," Jones said. "We made a lot less errors and played better as a team in the third set and it showed. We just have to focus up like we did in that last set and clean up our mistakes for Saturday."

The third and final set provided a glimpse of how dominant of a team the Wolves can be when they put everything together. Shirley figured things out offensively and was an absolute force, Jones kept providing some firepower offensively, and the team communicated well and played very sound, intense defense en route to a 15-point victory in the third set to clinch a sweep of Riley.

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