By Mike Deak
NAPPANEE – ‘Did anyone think these two weren’t going to go five games?’
The official who played Nostradamus Thursday night at the volleyball showdown between Warsaw and NorthWood wasn’t the only one not surprised the two 5-0 teams in the Northern Lakes Conference would wage a marathon match. NorthWood would ride the wave of its vocal home crowd and a strong fifth game to upend the Tigers 22-25, 25-12, 25-16, 25-18, 15-4.
The win puts the Panthers in the driver’s seat for a second NLC title in three years, perched atop the standings at 6-0. Warsaw, the defending NLC champion, drops to 5-1 and now becomes a huge fan of Wawasee, which hosts NorthWood next Thursday while Warsaw visits Concord.
As for matters on the court, the rhythm of the night looked like an inverted bell curve, with Warsaw looking solid in the first and fourth games, but on the chase to NorthWood in the second and third.
Kaylee Weeks looked as if she would be unstoppable during the first game, her kills giving Warsaw its 24th and 25th points of the game. Abby Sanner also held the middle well for Warsaw, picking up a kill and a block among a key stretch where NorthWood quickly was making up for a slow start.
Weeks and Sanner both had hands in Warsaw’s output in game two, but Claire Payne began to assert herself for the NorthWood cause. After NorthWood head coach Hilary Laidig called timeout when Warsaw took an 8-5 lead, Payne came out of the timeout with a kill, then later had a block and a kill in the same sequence as NorthWood took a 23-21 lead. Her block ended the second game, and all of a sudden, that homecourt advantage in The Pit was starting to emerge.
“I’m so proud of them for stepping up in big moments like tonight,” said Laidig. “There were a little bit of nerves in serve receive at times, but in that fifth set, we came out and made three big passes. They weren’t afraid to make errors because their teammates were behind them. That’s big for a team that hasn’t played in a lot of these types of games.”
Payne had three very loud kills in game three to help NorthWood take a 2-1 advantage, but game four saw the Panthers lose sight of the lanes it was hitting in the second and third games. A Melaina Hawblitzel ace put the Tigers up seven, and Weeks got loose on the edge for a pair of kills as Warsaw knotted the match at two, and while Warsaw really hadn’t controlled the tempo since game one, it was 15 points away from escaping with a win.
“That was our match. We came in here knowing that we had to win this match and not look beyond this match, and our girls were thoroughly ready,” said Warsaw head coach Chandra Hepler, who took a good 45 minutes afterwards to hold a closed-door meeting with her team. “I just think mentally we were on a roller coaster ride tonight. We didn’t have leaders step up to finish and execute. The bottom line is that they didn’t believe in themselves.”
Three of the first five points of the fifth game were off Payne kills, the freshman logging 16 on the night. A Macy Lengacher ace put NorthWood up 7-2, and an uncharacteristic setting error on Avery Hales, who was whistled for nearly a half dozen Thursday night, had NorthWood well on its way. A block to close it out sent the Panthers to the top of the NLC charts.
“Everything we talked about in practice, everything we did in prep for them, we just had to go back to it after the first game,” Laidig said. “We got lost a little in the first game, but we snapped out of it. They were doing exactly what they wanted to do, and we knew what they were doing. We had to adjust to it and force them away from their comfort zones. I thought getting there in the second game was key.”
Alana Lehman and Sophia Barber each had 12 kills, Lehman adding four blocks and Barber 18 digs. Annika Bennett sent up 47 assists and Lengacher added another 31 digs to her 1K résumé.
The Panthers (25-2, 6-0 NLC) have a pair of non-conference matches with Lakeland and South Bend Riley before closing its calendar at Wawasee next Thursday, the outright NLC title on the line.
The Tigers (17-13, 5-1 NLC) had Weeks pound 17 kills while Hawblitzel quietly stacked up 16 finishes. Sanner had eight kills and five blocks, Hales connected on 55 assists and Kylie Smith dug out 31 NorthWood chances.
“Our girls have all the physical tools that they need, it’s more mental,” Hepler said. “I think the more mentally prepared they can be, the better off we are going to be long term.”
The Warsaw JV won the opener 25-14, 24-25, 15-13. Daihya Chupp had 39 assists and 14 digs and Clara Porter had 14 kills for the Tigers. NorthWood had Tatum Evers and Aaliyah Bonner combine for 13 kills, Bonner adding three blocks.
The Warsaw freshmen beat NorthWood in the SAC 25-21, 25-15. Eve Everest led Warsaw with 16 assists and 11 digs.