STERLING – The Dixon Duchesses came out breathing fire, and their intensity carried them all the way to an upset victory Tuesday evening at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
Freshman libero Jessa Long sparked the fire with phenomenal back-row defense, Emily Bay stoked the flames with 12 straight service points in the decisive third set, and the Duchesses rode their emotion to a 25-16, 17-25, 25-20 win over the Sterling Golden Warriors.
"We really wanted this one," said Long, who was all over the court all match long and finished with 16 digs. "We hadn't beaten Sterling in a while, and we were looking forward to coming in here and staying excited and surprising them."
Dixon (6-8, 2-1 NIB-12 West) trailed just once in the opening set, at 3-2, and rode the hitting of senior Lexy Duncan (5 of her team-high 9 kills came in the first set) and the defense of Long and Olivia Sztochmal (9 digs, 6 points).
The Duchesses then grabbed a 13-7 lead in the second set before Gabby Sandoval's tip-kill seemed to turn the tide. Sterling took a 15-14 lead on a Darien Bardoner (16 assists, 8 points) ace, then fed senior Kiarra Harris down the stretch.
With the score tied at 17, Harris (11 kills) had kills on four consecutive points, then stuffed a Dixon spike with authority to end the set after freshman Kaylee Martin (14 kills, 10 points, 12 digs) reeled off back-to-back aces.
"At the beginning of the third set, we felt we had the momentum," said Sandoval, who had 11 digs, six kills and four points. "We started hitting the ball and running our offense, and Kiarra and Kaylee got hot. But every time we got going, there was Jessa digging up everything we sent over there. She was amazing tonight."
The third set went back and forth, as Dixon led 6-4 and Sterling (13-3, 1-2) led 10-7. But after a net violation on the Warriors made it 10-8, Bay stepped back to the service line.
She was back there because Dixon coach Bunyan Cocar switched things up mid-match. Long always serves for one of the Duchesses' middle hitters, and usually it's Bay. But in that third set, Cocar decided to have Long serve for Duncan, and give Bay a chance to make something happen.
Twelve straight points, including three aces, later, Cocar looked like a genius as Dixon held a 20-10 lead.
"I was definitely thinking, 'Just get it in bounds, no matter how hard I hit it, and just stay calm and help my team,'" said Bay, who also had two kills and two blocks. "I hadn't served in a while, and I was just really excited that I got that opportunity. I knew I had to take advantage of it."
Besides the three aces, the Duchesses got points on five Sterling errors, three kills by Amy Rotella (7 kills, 5 points, 5 digs), and a Duncan spike. A tip-kill from Sterling junior Taylor Hendrix (6 points, 3 kills) ended the run, but kills by Duncan and Caitlin Rozek (9 points, 5 kills) a few points later gave the Duchesses a 22-13 edge.
That's when Martin got going. With Sterling unable to get out of the rotation that sent Harris to the bench, the freshman hitter had kills on five of the next six points, then ripped another to cut the deficit to 23-20.
But the Duchesses wouldn't be denied. Haley Fitzsimmons ripped her second kill of the match for a 24-20 lead, then – fittingly – Long served an ace to set off a wild celebration of purple and white.
"We just tried to keep the positive energy, not get down on ourselves and just pick each other up after we lost a point," Bay said. "Coach called two timeouts during their run, and he told us during the second one that we just had to calm down, get our energy back to the right level and finish strong."
Rachel Gascoigne added 21 assists and eight digs for Dixon.
"We work on defense more than offense in practice, and it paid off tonight," Long said. "We worked hard, never gave up on a play and scrambled well. And then Emily goes back and makes it look like she serves every day, like she's been doing it her whole life, and … I've never been this excited after a volleyball match."
Jaymee Trancoso led the Sterling defense with 13 digs, and Jordyn Koett chipped in 10 assists and six points.
"Dixon came in hungry, and they were more fired up than we were," Sterling coach Dale Dykeman said. "Every team in this league is good enough to beat anybody else if you don't show up ready to play on any given night, and hopefully we learned that lesson tonight."
Dixon def. Sterling 25-16, 17-25, 25-20
Star of the match: Jessa Long, Dixon, 16 digs, 5 points, 2 aces
Key performers: Lexy Duncan, Dixon, 9 kills; Amy Rotella, Dixon, 7 kills, 5 points, 5 digs; Emily Bay, Dixon, 12 straight points, 3 aces, 2 kills, 2 blocks; Kaylee Martin, Sterling, 14 kills, 10 points, 2 aces, 10 digs; Kiarra Harris, Sterling, 11 kills
Up next: Sterling at Streator & Geneseo at Dixon, both 6 p.m. Thursday