AMBOY – The Newman Comets came out so red-hot Thursday in the Class 2A Amboy Regional final, it surprised both teams a little bit. But the first-set loss seemed to wake up Seneca, and the Irish never looked back after that.
Like waking a sleeping giant, the Comets were no match for Seneca once it got going, and the result was a 19-25, 25-11, 25-13 Irish win that ended Newman's stellar season.
"It was nice to get an early lead, which really helped the girls settle in," Newman coach Debbi Kelly said. "But Seneca came back real strong, and once they got their front row going, we just couldn't stay up on them with the block."
Newman (22-12) raced out to leads of 4-0 and 8-2 in the opening set, forcing an early Irish timeout. Even after Seneca rallied a bit to tie that first game at 10-10 and 11-11, the scrappy, hard-working Comets never let up.
Digging spike after spike, Newman frustrated Seneca's deep pool of talented hitters, and the Comets' ability to scramble and keep the Irish out of system for nearly the entire first set.
Rachel Hageman had half of her team-high 12 kills in that opening game, and Kayci Howell set 10 of her team-high 19 assists.
"We were just so energetic, really came to play," Newman junior Bree deLong (7 kills) said. "We were hitting everything hard, digging everything up, and played every point like it was game point. It was an amazing feeling, the best feeling in the world to get such a strong opening set against a good team like that."
But Seneca bounced back quickly from the opening onslaught. Shaking off the 1-0 deficit, the Irish scored nine out of 11 points to open the second set, and rolled from there. The Irish led by at least nine points for the majority of the second set, taking their biggest lead at 24-9 before the set ended with a lift call when a pair of Comets collided going after a pass.
"They came out so strong in the second set, started getting their kills down, and we couldn't really get back from it," Newman junior Megan Rosengren (4 kills) said. "We hustled and talked great in the first set, never let our mistakes get to us – but we couldn't keep it up."
The third set looked much the same as the second. Seneca (26-8-3) took the momentum by finally getting a kill down after a long rally to take a 7-4 lead, and stretched the margin to 15-7 after Newman sandwiched a pair of errors around an Irish miscue.
The Comets got to within 16-10 on Hageman's final kill of the match, but Seneca reeled off eight of the next 10 points to set up match point with a 24-12 lead.
"Our offense was phenomenal in the last two sets," Seneca senior Aspen Stuedemann (7 kills, 3 blocks) said. "Every single player we had in the front row was putting the ball away. It seems like it happens all the time for us: once we get into that second set, we just kill it."
Rosengren staved off the final point with her final kill of the evening, but Kayla Haines (5 kills, 2 blocks, 7 assists, 6 points) closed things off with a free-ball kill to seal the Irish's first regional title since 2004 and set off a Seneca celebration.
Serve receive was the biggest difference for the Irish. Led by libero Chelsie McCormick (15 digs, 14 points, 5 aces), Seneca's back row picked up its level of play and started giving its offense a chance to get on track. Danielle Hauch (5 kills) was the fourth Irish attacker with at least five kills, and setter Madison Wyss finished with 22 assists and a pair of aces.
"Coach [Karen Raney] told us after the first game that if we wanted to win, we had to pick up the passing," senior Nicole Pihl (12 kills, 2 blocks, 8 points, 4 digs) said. "We had 12 'very bad' passes in the first set, but once we regrouped and fixed that, our hitters were able to smoke the ball – and that made us much more aggressive at the net and with our serve."
As disappointed as the Comets were to see their season end, the run to the regional final was more than even they anticipated. While the loss of senior leaders Hageman, Jaimie Hurd (3 kills) and Laura Turnroth will sting a bit, coach Kelly and company see 2012 as a great jumping-off point for the Comet program heading into the future.
"We never imagined we'd get to the regional final," Rosengren said, "and it didn't even seem real until we were actually warming up today. We had a strong team this year, and we should have a strong team again next year with a lot of the same girls coming back."
"We exceeded a lot of people's expectations this year, especially with such a young team," Kelly added. "This was a great experience, and we definitely expect to be able to build on this."
Class 2A Amboy Regional final
Seneca def. Newman 19-25, 25-11, 25-13
Star of the match: Nicole Pihl, Seneca, 12 kills, 2 blocks, 8 points, 4 digs
Key performers: Rachel Hageman, Newman, 12 kills, 1 block; Bree deLong, Newman, 7 kills; Aspen Stuedemann, Seneca, 7 kills, 3 blocks; Chelsie McCormick, Seneca, 15 digs, 14 points, 5 aces