DUNLAP – Warsaw volleyball coach Rick Ashmore knew that his team would have to come ready to play in order to sideline Elkhart Memorial in postseason play Thursday night.
The Tigers did just that.
Warsaw shook off an early deficit and then looked sharp and focused in topping the Crimson Chargers 25-21, 25-21, 25-16 in opening round play of the Class 4-A Concord Sectional in McCuen Gym.
The Tigers got great offensive balance from a host of hitters and terrific play from savvy setter Kacy Bragg to turn back the gritty Chargers for the third time this season.
Warsaw had defeated Memorial twice in a span of four days back in August. The Tigers won 25-14, 20-25, 15-12 in pool play in the Misahwaka Invitational Aug. 26 and then beat the Chargers 25-17, 25-16, 25-21 in a Northern Lakes Conference match at Warsaw on Aug. 29
Warsaw, now 21-13, advances to play Goshen Saturday in the first semifinal at 11 a.m. Goshen topped Northridge 25-21, 25-16, 25-12 in the opening match Thursday night. Defending sectional champion Concord faces Elkhart Central in the second semifinal Saturday. The title tilt is set for 7 p.m. Saturday with the winner moving on to the LaPorte Regional on Oct. 21.
Memorial, never an easy out in October when it matters most, sees its season end at 12-22.
Ashmore saw his team fall behind early 5-0 and 7-2 in the opening set to Memorial, but never flinch.
“I thought that we came out with a lot of energy at the start despite falling behind,” said Ashmore, who is in his second season at WCHS. “Our girls stepped up and never quit playing. They really did a lot of positive things tonight.
“We knew that we would have to play well tonight. We knew that Memorial would come out ready to play and that they had improved since we played them twice early in the season. Jacquie (Memorial coach Jacquie Rost) does a great job.
“What we talked about in practice the last week, our kids came out and did tonight. They responded. It was good how they kept their focus when Memorial made runs at us tonight. Kacy (setter Kacy Bragg) did a nice job mixing it up for us. She moved the ball around and spread it to different hitters. This was a heck of a win to beat them in three. It was hard fought for everything tonight.”
The Tigers clawed their way back in the opening set in impressive fashion. Memorial led 11-5 before Ashmore took a timeout. The Chargers were up 15-12 and 17-15 before Warsaw drew even at 17-17. The Tigers got three key points to rally to a 22-19 lead thanks to big kills from junior Katie Swanson and senior Hanna Leach. The Chargers got within 23-21 before senior Lexie Day slammed a kill off a Memorial blocker and then a Charger hitting error gave the Tigers the pivotal opening game.
Warsaw trailed again early in the second set at 7-5 and 12-10 before steadying the ship. The Tigers used three big points to take command, turning a 14-14 deadlock into a 17-14 lead. Junior setter Bragg slammed a key kill in the stretch to spark her team. The trio of Swanson, Day and Leach all played big at the net down the stretch and freshman Elizabeth Schmidt served up a key ace for the Tigers.
The Tigers wasted no time in taking charge in the final set. Warsaw got a pair of aces from sophomore McKenna Hawblitzel and two big time swings from Leach to race to a 7-0 lead. Memorial simply did not have enough offensive firepower to rally back. The Tigers ended the 74-minute match as freshman Kennedy Lauck blocked a Charger shot for match point.
The No. 13 was anything but unlucky for Warsaw in this one. Leach, who sports the number on her jersey, turned in a stellar performance for the Tigers.
“All of us knew that this was not going to be easy tonight,” said Leach, who led her team with 12 kills. “We were determined in practice this past week. We know that Warsaw has not won a sectional in a long time and our five seniors really want this and know that we can do it. We just have so much confidence in each other. We believe in each other out there on the court.”
Memorial coach Jacquie Rost saw plenty to like from her team despite the final outcome.
“I’m just really proud of how my team fought tonight,” said Rost. “This is the must improved team that I have coached. They just had a tremendous work ethic and got better and better and better this season. They had a fight, grit and stamina.
“Warsaw was the better team tonight. They are very solid and well coached. I thought that their ball control was excellent. We were on our heels a lot and we did not get them out of system as much as we had hoped to. The parts of their game that we thought we could expose we couldn’t tonight.”
Rost knows a thing or two about success for sure. She posted her 600th coaching win last weekend in her 23rd season in charge of the Chargers. Rost is 600-203 at Memorial with four State Finals appearances, including runner-up finishes in both 2007 and 2009.
Leach slammed down a dozen kills to pace a balanced and diversified Warsaw attack. Day had 10 kills, while Swanson had eight and Bragg and Lauck each added four.
Bragg turned in her usual outstanding stat-stuffer showing. The smooth southpaw had 30 assists to go with a block.
Hawblitzel had four aces, while junior libero Erin Peugh had two and a huge 28 digs. Day had 12 digs and senior Emali Grose six. Swanson had two blocks, while Lauck had one.
Junior DeJeanea Johnson led Memorial with 11 kills. Sophomore Margaret Wiegand had 15 assists and an ace. Johnson also had 10 digs, while Morgan Gonoski had eight and Brooke Troyer seven for Memorial, which will lose four seniors.
Warsaw, with two wins on Saturday, could claim its first sectional championship since 2004.
The Tigers beat NLC foe Goshen 25-13, 25-14, 25-12 during the regular season. They also beat Concord 25-20, 12-25, 14-25, 25-17, 15-11 in a league match on Oct. 5 at Concord. Warsaw did not face Elkhart Central this season.
“We have to come ready to play Saturday,” concluded Ashmore.