By Mike Deak
SYRACUSE – The Hardwood Teepee at Wawasee was quite a platform for a very memorable showcase. There was some very good volleyball also being played.
Combined as a Pink Out Night for both NorthWood and Wawasee, there was enough going on outside the volleyball game to have its own event. With two rivals going toe-to-toe with one trying to win the Northern Lakes Conference in front of a very big crowd, the energy of championship sports was a welcomed environment for quite an evening spectacle.
Off the court, the two teams raised over $4,000 to donate to Goshen Health’s Center For Cancer Care for cancer research and support. Both teams came together before and during the match to pose for photos, one with a donation check and also Wawasee presented flowers mid-match to those in attendance who have or are still battling cancer.
As for on the court, NorthWood would win 3-0 to secure a perfect 7-0 run in the NLC and its second outright championship in three years, but the 25-21, 25-20, 25-23 scoreline in favor of the visiting Panthers painted another picture that could be revisited in a little over a week’s time.
The Teepee was flush in hues of pink, as virtually the entire crowd filling most of the west end of the gym and the student sections taking up much of the eastern lower levels were all decked in according colors unifying as one to show support for the Pink Out initiative. With over 250 students from both schools involved, it became a rowdy environment cheering on two programs with high hopes of postseason magic, and roads that likely will collide in LaGrange next Saturday at the Lakeland Sectional semi-finals.
In game one, NorthWood used an 8-1 run to build a 16-9 lead after Karis Bennett whistled an ace. Wawasee would battle back to trail just 22-19 after Emma Siri recorded a kill, but Wawasee would suffer from a pair of unforced errors to close out the set, Leslie Vazquez on a gimme kill that landed just wide to end it.
The mastery that is becoming Annika Bennett on set for NorthWood was really present in the second frame. As NorthWood was pulling away, a pair of nicely placed sets were smashed home by Alana Lehman, and a tip drill winner by Sophia Barber closed out set two.
“It’s just a group mentality, an aggressive mentality, to move to the ball and want the ball,” stated Annika Bennett, who hung 40 assists in the match. “We had to put it down. When it was on our side, it’s up to us to put it down. We can’t rely on Wawasee or whoever to make mistakes and give us points. We have to score the points and put pressure on them. My job was to find the hot hitters and let them put it away.”
It could have easily been fold the tent time for Wawasee down 2-0 on the match board, but the third game found itself tied at 18, and after another Siri kill, it was 22-20 Wawasee. But to the joy of NorthWood head coach Hilary Laidig, her team took the initiative and put the match away. Barber and Claire Payne had kills, Wawasee made a pair of errors and Barber finished off the conference championship with an ace to send Laidig to her 300th career win.
“You obviously start the year wanting to win the NLC, we push that from the start,” Laidig said. “You look at the teams in this conference and who you have to beat if you want to go undefeated, that’s a big ask. So credit to our kids for staying focused. I mean, wow. Can’t say enough about the job they did.”
Lehman led the Panthers (28-2, 7-0 NLC) with 13 kills and both Barber and Payne settled with nine kills, Payne adding four blocks. Macy Lengacher paced the backline with 25 digs and Barber had 14 digs to boot.
The Warriors (21-10, 1-6 NLC), still without the services of its setter, Amanda Allen – herself working through a bum ankle, looked like a team needing some air in the tires to start. But as the duo of Kai Jamora (14 assists) and Emma Young (17 assists) got into a rhythm, Wawasee looked like the team with 21 wins coming into the night. Dylan Konieczny and Vazquez combined for 24 kills, and Miller and Vazquez dug 34 Panther attempts.
With a bye into the Lakeland semi-finals next week and if NorthWood can unseat Lakeland on Thursday, pleasantries will be renewed in what could be a wild Saturday morning of volleyball.
“We hope Amanda’s ankle starts to feel better, obviously that scenario plays out outside of our control,” said Wawasee head coach Jeff Phillips. “She’s working hard every day, in the training room doing what she can. But for tonight, I’m super proud with how Kai came back after not setting for a year-and-a-half and saying, hey, I can do it. Emma coming in nervous, but she did her best. Emma Siri also showed up for us tonight once again. She’s saying we don’t need to give Leslie and Dylan every ball, feed me on the outside. That gives us options. That gives us confidence. Makes us a lot tougher to defend.
Continued Phillips, “From a volleyball standpoint, super happy with tonight. We’re playing for a lot of other things outside of the game, too. The game, we obviously want to win, but we want to show them that they haven’t won the sectional yet. I’m very proud of coach Laidig getting her 300th win. I just hope she doesn’t get 302.”
JV winner went to Wawasee with a 25-20, 25-21 final, Julie Mishler leading the Warriors with 11 kills and six digs. The freshman Warriors also won by a 25-24, 25-21 count. Abby Dusek had four kills, four assists and two aces for the hosts.