DIXON – The first-match jitters gave way to frustration for the Sauk Valley Skyhawks volleyball team Thursday night.
After seeming to finally settle in about midway through the first set on their home court, the Skyhawks found very few openings in the Rock Valley defense. The defending NJCAA Division III national champions left Dixon with a 3-0 victory over Sauk, 25-13, 25-18, 25-22.
"We didn't expect them to be everywhere," Sauk sophomore middle hitter Kayla Kurz said. "We weren't exactly firing on all cylinders at the start, and I think we underestimated their defense."
Sauk (0-1) struggled all night at the net. In addition to 25 hitting errors in the three sets, the Skyhawks also found it tough to get around Rock Valley's blockers and in between the back-row defenders.
Rock Valley (1-0) outkilled the Skyhawks 33-27, outblocked them 8-4, and had 12 fewer hitting errors.
"We always go into every match with the mentality of keeping the pressure on the other team," Rock Valley coach Kyle Shondell said. "We want to outwork our opponents on every point, and that was tough at times tonight against Sauk – we're pretty even, talent-wise – but we found ways to fight through some adversity and make plays."
It was Rock Valley's scrambling ability that made the difference. Several times during the match, when it looked like Sauk had the Golden Eagles on the run, the tables would suddenly turn. Instead of celebrating a point, the Skyhawks found themselves on the wrong side of big scoring runs in each set.
Sauk came out strong, scoring the first three points of the match, but Rock Valley rallied to tie it at 5, then scored 12 of the next 15 points to take control. The Golden Eagles put the set away after winning long rallies on back-to-back points.
The second set was back and forth, with Sauk trailing by as much as 9-5 early before coming back to take an 11-10 lead on back-to-back service points by freshman Morgan Mammosser (4 kills, 4 points, 12 digs). But four straight hitting errors a short time later turned a 13-12 deficit into a 17-12 hole, and the Skyhawks couldn't dig back out of it.
"We finally started to get some rhythm in the second set, and we carried it over to the third," sophomore setter Karly Koch (23 assists, 7 points, 2 tip-kills) said. "We weren't ready for their blocking and digging, and we struggled to adjust, but I thought we really started to pick things up with Kayla and Kalli [Scheppers] heading into the third set."
Sauk wrestled the momentum away to start the third, taking leads of 6-3 and 8-5. The Skyhawks stretched the margin to as many as five points on four occasions, the last at 17-12. Three of those leads came on a kill by Scheppers (10 kills), a kill from Alyssa Workman (2 kills, 1 block), and a stuff block by Kurz (8 kills, 3 blocks); the final one was on a double-hit by Rock Valley.
But the Golden Eagles battled back, their final rally starting on a Sauk hitting error. Rock Valley tied the score at 19 with a kill, then at 20 with a block, then again at 21 with another kill. The Skyhawks then had a net violation and a hitting error, and Mammosser's back-row kill following Sauk's final timeout of the set was all the Skyhawks could muster the rest of the way.
"It was disappointing that we had the momentum there in the third set and couldn't finish it off," Sauk coach Jay Howell said. "But their coverage on our hitters was very good, and you've got to attack to beat a team like that, not settle for tips and free balls. But we learned some things, and I think we'll definitely build on it."
And while the Skyhawk players were equally disappointed they couldn't win their season opener in front of their home fans, they are looking at the loss as a motivator instead of a step back.
"We know we can play better than this and have a lot of success this season," Kurz said, "so we're fired up to come back stronger."
"We're all so competitive," Koch added, "that this won't be anything that gets us down. We're going to learn from this, shake it off and keep getting better."
Hannah Stanley led Rock Valley with 17 assists and 11 points, and she added seven kills. Jen Catterson spiked 10 kills, Alyssa Sanders stuffed four blocks, and Abby Compton chipped in five kills, three blocks and nine points.
Rock Valley def. Sauk Valley 25-13, 25-18, 25-22
Star of the match: Hannah Stanley, RV, 17 assists, 11 points, 7 kills
Key performers: Jen Catterson, RV, 10 kills; Kalli Scheppers, Sauk, 10 kills; Kayla Kurz, Sauk, 8 kills, 3 blocks; Karly Koch, Sauk, 23 assists, 7 points, 2 kills
Up next: Sauk Valley at Black Hawk Tournament, Saturday