POLO – The Erie Cardinals had the match right where they wanted it. But then that fickle ol’ mo turned against them, and they couldn’t find a way to swing it back to their side.
With the first-set point at their fingertips in the Class 1A Polo Sectional on Tuesday, the Cardinals watched a free ball from Stockton’s Kristin Wright fall between three diving defenders, tying the score at 24-all.
The Blackhawks rolled from there, finishing out a first-set victory and then taking the second set in a 26-24, 25-17 semifinal win that sent them on to Thursday’s championship match against Keith Country Day.
“Volleyball is such a game of momentum, and we just made a lot of little mistakes that we don’t normally make,” Erie senior hitter Paige Rus (9 kills, 3 blocks) said. “We gave it everything we had, left it all out on the court, but couldn’t pull it out.”
Erie (26-10), making just its second sectional appearance since 1987, was caught playing from behind from the the get-go. Stockton (30-4) led 6-2 to start both sets, and the Cardinals held just once all match.
But it seemed to be at the perfect time. Erie rallied from a 16-13 deficit in the opening set to tie the score at 17, then called timeout three points later when Stockton regained a 20-17 margin. Trailing 23-19, Peyton Rus (7 kills) ripped a kill for a sideout, then Brooke Naftzger reeled off four straight points – one an ace, two Stockton hitting errors, and a kill by Rachel Cobert (4 kills) – to move to within one point of taking the first set.
“We really thought we had it there, and had a shot to take that momentum and win the match,” senior setter Katelyn Temple (16 assists) said. “But sometimes you’re going to have an off night, and we just picked a bad night to do it.
“I’m really proud of this team; we played as hard as we could, and that’s all you can ask for. It just didn’t work out for us tonight.”
Instead, the free-ball kill by Kristin Wright (5 kills, 8 digs, 7 points) turned the match around. Stockton recovered from its only deficit to take the next two points, then grabbed a 10-4 lead to open the second set.
“We just had to get our mental focus back,” said Madalyn Dower, who led the Blackhawks with eight kills and three blocks. “We knew we needed three points there, so we pushed through and did what we had to do to get them. We weren’t surprised they fought back – it’s the sectional, so you can’t take anything for granted – and we just had to refocus and finish it strong.”
After taking the six-point second-set lead, Stockton never let Erie back into it. The Cardinals were never able to string together more than two consecutive points the rest of the way, and they only scored two straight twice.
“Inevitably, you’re going to have matches where you don’t have your ‘A’ game,” Erie coach Alicia Murphy said. “The girls fought hard and battled all night, but this was just an off night.”
Senior Deanna Black added seven assists for the Cardinals, while Savannah Mettler added four kills and a block. Courtney Cobert and Mary Chapman led the way with six digs each.
For Stockton, Kara Wright added five kills, Kelsey Wright had four kills, a block and seven assists, and Krista Zueger finished with 18 assists and five digs. Emily Langfield chipped in eight digs as the Blackhawks continue the program’s first-ever foray into the sectional finals.
“We stayed focused, stay involved in every play, and kept everybody on the same page,” Stockton coach Colleen Fox said. “When they made their runs, we were able to regroup and make happen the things that we wanted to make happen.”
As tough as the season-ending loss was, there are plenty of bright days ahead for the Cardinals. They lose three key seniors in Paige Rus, Temple and Black, but bring back everybody else – including hard hitters Mettler, Peyton Rus and Rachel Cobert and libero Courtney Cobert.
“It’s just so emotional for me right now,” Paige Rus said, “but I’m really jealous I’m not going to be able to play on this team next year. I’ll definitely be back to watch my sister and the rest of these girls; they’re going to be awesome.”
“This is just the beginning,” Temple added. “This regional championship was the start of a new tradition here in Erie volleyball, and I hope they just keep getting better and better.”
Class 1A Polo Sectional semifinal
Stockton def. Erie 26-24, 25-17
Star of the match: Paige Rus, Erie, 9 kills, 3 blocks
Key performers: Peyton Rus, Erie, 7 kills; Madalyn Dower, Stockton, 8 kills, 3 blocks; Kristin Wright, Stockton, 5 kills, 8 assists, 7 points; Krista Zueger, Stockton, 18 assists, 5 digs
Up next: Class 1A Polo Sectional final, Stockton vs. Keith Country Day, 7 p.m. Thursday