By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – Even Senior Nights are subject to change by the minute in 2020.
A late add to the night’s senior volleyball class celebration following NorthWood’s 3-0 romp of LaVille seemed more than fitting for how the 2020 fall sports season has gone in Elkhart County.
After missing Ella Gongwer’s parent’s beforehand, Mr. and Mrs. were able to be recognized with their daughter following the match as the entire team and parents reclaimed their spots on the court for a proper photo and sendoff.
It was about the only glitch in an otherwise sharp performance by the senior-laden Red Slam.
NorthWood didn’t cruise, per se, but a 25-10, 25-14, 25-12 scoreline that had the match last just over an hour did show the difference between the Class 3-A powerhouse Panthers and the up-and-coming Class 2-A Lancers.
NorthWood at times still looked to be finding itself after a huge graduation loss of three of its top hitters in Maddie Payne, Caroline Mullet and Kate Rulli along with defensive specialist Gracie Clark and outside hitter Grace Kniesly, That just seemed to open up auditions for who wanted to take over, and NorthWood had them coming in waves.
Alea Minnich and Ali Knepp took turns pushing home kills in the first set, as did Alana Lehman. LaVille didn’t have much answer as far as net defense, which gave the likes of Bre Wise and Gongwer chances to work the right side as Minnich and Lehman commanded more of LaVille’s attention.
Annika Bennett, who was being groomed to be the heir apparent to Mullet as the team’s setting dynamo, has shown more promise in the early going as a hitter, giving NorthWood head coach Hilary Laidig more than enough options to score points.
“We’re still in a kind of new phase, but they are mixing it up out there and doing a great job,” Laidig said. “We are working on some new looks with Kendal now the setter and Ali moving around a little more, but the girls are figuring it out. A lot of seniors out there who have played a lot of volleyball.”
Minnich led the Panthers with 13 kills, with Knepp and Gongwer each recording seven on their Senior Night. Wise led the team with three aces and senior classmate Kendal Miller shuttled both of her aces over in a stretch of the second game where LaVille trailed just 12-10 before NorthWood went on a 10-2 run fueled by Miller’s services.
Miller, who was an All-State selection last year as a defensive specialist, shifted to the primary setter role and led the Red Slam with 30 assists. Bennett added eight helpers.
The NorthWood back line was scrappy all night, and it showed with Halle DeMien in her senior showing coming through with a team-leading 12 digs, followed by Knepp and another senior, Kennedy Hochstetler, each registering nine saves.
NorthWood, which started its season with a loss against Penn on Aug. 26, has now rattled off seven straight wins to sit at 7-1 on the season. The Red Slam open Northern Lakes Conference play Thursday at McCuen Gym against host Concord.
“This is a really competitive group of kids,” Laidig said. “They play with a little chip on their shoulder. They don’t mind teams coming after them. Having that tournament over the weekend to get them going after the time off, hopefully they are ready to go on Thursday against Concord.”