NAPPANEE – NorthWood looked like a team on a mission Thursday night.
The Panthers locked up at least a share of the Northern Lakes Conference volleyball championship after knocking off visiting Warsaw, 3-1, Thursday night at a boisterous Panther Pit.
NorthWood came into the night just needing to split between Warsaw and its match next Thursday at Wawasee to claim a share of the title. It achieved at least half of that equation with a huge showing against the Tigers in a 25-17, 16-25, 25-13, 25-19 scoreline. While Warsaw’s focus went primarily to Panther big Maddy Payne, it was the supporting cast that stepped up for the home side.
Ali Knepp had a huge night with 10 kills, Payne often serving as the decoy on short runs while Caroline Mullet, who had 39 assists, went long to find Knepp one-on-one on the outside. Mullet, who is one of the top assistants in the state, did a little bit of everything, chipping in four blocks and three aces to go with her handy work. Payne did get her work in, throwing down 11 kills and four solo blocks, a series in the fourth game where Payne had three straight kills looking every bit like the Bethel University volleyball recruit.
Defense was a big part of both team’s survival in game wins, NorthWood’s paramount to its success. Kendal Miller had herself a night on the chase for the Panthers, pulling a team-high 19 digs, several coming at opportune times. Her up of a Kennedy Lauck missile allowed Alana Lehman to send over a key point in the fourth game, and on multiple occasions in the third game Miller was on the receiving end of Warsaw ambitions that went unscathed.
“Kendal kind of leads that defense back there with Macy Lengacher and Kennedy (Hochstetler) they all just go after every ball,” said NorthWood head coach Hilary Laidig. “That is a killer when you are a hitter to constantly get the ball dug when you think it’s a kill. Tonight they were awesome back there.”
Hochstetler added 16 digs, the junior also finding herself keeping the black-and-white Wilson off the hardwood in dramatic fashion as Warsaw was desperate to rally any way possible. Lengacher and Kate Rulli also played vital roles in NorthWood’s defensive effort.
Where Warsaw made its money primarily came in the second set. Running out to an 11-7 lead in game two after NorthWood stunned the Tigers in the first set, Lauck caught fire, her crosscourt kill giving Warsaw a five-point cushion, then later hammering home another kill to put Warsaw up seven. Lauck, however, didn’t find much more space to shoot, ending with 12 kills. Gwyn Bellamy quietly stacked up 12 kills for the Tigers, but just couldn’t string together enough runs to quell Class 2-A No. 3 NorthWood’s momentum.
“NorthWood’s ranked third in the state and we were right there,” said Warsaw head coach Rick Ashmore. “We had a couple opportunities slip by. They are a really solid team and our kids played hard, and that’s all you can ask of a team to play hard. We had too many hitting errors but that’s something we’ll work on. Good match. Good one to watch. Both teams played well.”
Kaylee Weeks added 11 kills, Avery Hales had 42 assists and the trio of Kendra Love, Kylie Smith and Liz Schmidt were all over their side of the court with a combined 44 digs.
Warsaw won an exciting opening act in The Pit, taking the JV match 22-25, 25-22, 15-12. Warsaw had a big night from Tessa Graney, who had 16 assists, seven digs, two kills and an ace, and Katie McKibben, who added eight kills and seven digs. NorthWood had Jayden Gessinger and Annika Bennett combine for 28 assists and 15 kills. Tori Mullet added 13 digs.
The freshman contest in the AC building across the parking lot had NorthWood beat Warsaw 25-21, 25-20. Lauren Eastwood led Warsaw with 10 assists, seven digs and two aces. NorthWood did not provide its freshman stats.
NorthWood (26-3) works Monday in its final home match against potential sectional foe Lakeland while Warsaw (19-7) will head to the Dunes Tourney on Saturday. The two teams wrap up NLC play next Thursday when NorthWood visits Wawasee and Warsaw visits Concord. NorthWood, at 6-0, needs a win at Wawasee to take the NLC outright as Memorial is 6-1 after beating Wawasee, 3-0, Thursday night. Warsaw (4-2 NLC) can finish no worse than fourth in the NLC.