STERLING – For two sets, the Newman Comets and Fulton Steamers battled back and forth, fighting tooth and nail. Fulton rallied late for a first-set win, and the Comets returned the favor to take the second.
But in the third set, Newman coach Debbi Kelly seemed to push all the right buttons, and the Comets kept their spot atop the Three Rivers North standings with a 24-26, 28-26, 25-13 victory Tuesday night over the Steamers in Sterling.
Newman (16-8, 10-1) came out hot in the decisive set, as Aubree Schmitt nailed three kills in the first five points to stake the Comets to a lead they would never relinquish.
"Before every match, [assistant coach Andrew] Olson gives us a word of the day; today, he gave us three," said Schmitt, who led Newman with 12 kills and also served six points. "They were fun, energy, and prove, meaning prove ourselves that we're one of the top teams in the conference. The first set, we did none of that.
"But we have the mentality to never give up, and once we got rid of those jitters and nerves early on, we got on a roll and just kept going."
Neither team led by more than five in the first set, and Fulton (6-15, 5-7) faced set point at 24-23 before two Rachael Beiermann kills sandwiched an Averi Leitzen ace to rally for the victory.
The second set was more of the same, as long rallies highlighted another set in which Newman led by four on two separate occasions before finding itself down 26-25 following a Camerin Huizenga kill.
"We really felt like we were right where we wanted to be the first two sets," Beiermann said. "They were fun sets to be a part of, and there were a lot of exciting rallies … although when you get the point at the end of them, they're a lot better.
"But we didn't give up, didn't let the ball drop without fighting for it, and really competed with a good team at their level."
The Steamers lost their chance to close out the win when the Comets matched Fulton's first-set comeback. Megan Rosengren ripped back-to-back kills and Schmitt hammered another to erase match point and force a final set.
"It helps to get that momentum going into the third set," said Rosengren, who had nine kills, two blocks and six points. "We expect teams to come out hard against us, and Fulton did that tonight. But we finally realized how bad we wanted this win, and our offense got a lot smoother thanks to some good passing there toward the end."
The third set was all Comets. After Schmitt's early onslaught, Bree de Long (9 kills, 6 points, 2 aces), Julie Hurd (5 points, 4 kills, 8 digs) and Rachel Humphreys (4 kills) got into the act at the net. Fulton never managed to score more than two consecutive points in the entire set, and Rosengren finished things out with five kills and a block in the final 10 points.
It wasn't just Newman's big guns that played pivotal roles, however. Every Comet who stepped on the court provided a spark. Baleigh Osborne had two kills and a point, Allie Harkness served two key points late in each of the second and third sets, and libero Sara Nysather and defensive specialist Sarah Trujillo set the tone in the back row with nine digs each.
"Everyone took advantage of the opportunities they got to play tonight," de Long said. "We have so many girls who just want to get in and make a difference, and we had a lot of the right girls in the right places at the right times tonight."
Allison Shipman and Kayci Howell both dished 21 assists, with Shipman serving nine points and Howell chipping in four kills and four points.
Chelsea Lesniewski led all hitters with 15 kills for the Steamers, while Beiermann finished with 14 assists, eight kills and seven points. Leitzen had 18 digs, Jamie Huennekens added 13 digs, 10 points and three aces, and Olivia Edfors had 12 assists, nine digs and seven points. Betsy Leonard had six kills and three blocks for Fulton, but it was the defense that let the Steamers down in the latter stages of the match.
"We just lost our defense, and never picked up their hitters at the end," coach Stacy Germann said. "We played smart the first two sets, then we tried to finish the match with only our offense and no defense. When you're only one-sided against a team like Newman, which finished strong in both areas, it's not going to work out too well for you."
Newman def. Fulton 24-26, 28-26, 25-13
Star of the match: Aubree Schmitt, Newman, 12 kills, 6 points, 1 ace, 1 assist
Key performers: Megan Rosengren, Newman, 9 kills, 6 points, 2 blocks; Bree de Long, Newman, 9 kills, 6 points, 2 aces; Kayci Howell, Newman, 21 assists, 4 kills, 4 points; Chelsea Lesniewski, Fulton, 15 kills, 1 block; Rachael Beiermann, Fulton, 14 assists, 8 kills, 7 points, 1 ace, 1 block; Jamie Huennekens, Fulton, 13 digs, 10 points, 3 aces, 1 block
Up next: Newman at Erie, 6 p.m. Thursday; Fulton at Amboy, 7 p.m. Thursday