DIXON – One of the final things Dixon coach Bunyan Cocar told his Duchesses prior to Thursday night's home finale was directed at his five seniors.
"I told them they're going to enjoy their Senior Night a lot more if they win," he said.
Heeding their coach's words of wisdom, Dixon came out hot and fought through a mid-match lull to rally for a 25-23, 25-19 victory over Ottawa at Lancaster Gym. The win wrapped up third place in the Northern Illinois Big 12 West, and avenged a two-set loss in Ottawa back on Oct. 1.
"We wanted to go out with a bang, I guess you could say," senior Caitlin Rozek said. "We wanted to give our crowd a good game in our final match at home, but we didn't want to go to a third game. We finally got our intensity back up to where it was at the start, and we finished strong."
Dixon (15-18, 6-4) bolted to a 6-1 lead in the opening set, thanks to some strong hitting and some Ottawa miscues. The Pirates (18-15-1, 4-6) pulled to within one point four times, the last at 15-14, but after a timeout, a Lexy Duncan kill, a Rozek kill and two Ottawa hitting errors gave Dixon a 19-14 lead.
Another kill and an ace from Rozek made it 22-16, but that's when the Pirates made their move. Jessica Wignes spiked a pair of kills, and Emily Weber added another as Ottawa forced a second timeout by the Duchesses.
Amy Rotella sandwiched two kills around a spike by Ottawa's Emily Despain, then back-to-back Dixon hitting errors brought the Pirates within 24-23. But Rotella came up big again, slicing a kill down the line for a first-set win.
"We built up some momentum, then they kind of stole it," Rotella said. "But it's really reassuring that we have so many good hitters, because it takes the pressure off all of us. We started the second set kind of rough, but we bounced back and got the job done."
That rough start involved deficits of 5-1 and 8-3, but the Duchesses rallied. An illegal hit by Ottawa went for a sideout, then Rozek served two points, the second an ace. An Olivia Sztochmal point and kills by Sztochmal and Rotella a few points later tied the set at 10.
The Pirates answered, scoring the next five points on two kills, a block and two Dixon hitting errors. But an Ottawa hitting error again went for a sideout, and Rotella kick-started the decisive run. The junior hitter served an ace, then ripped a back-row kill before Rozek and Duncan spiked kills and Rachel Gascoigne reeled off an ace for an 18-16 Dixon lead, its first of the set.
"It was a combination of things," Rotella said. "We started passing better, talking more, and we finally got our offense into a rhythm."
"When we get going, our level goes up and up and up," Duncan added, "and it doesn't matter what the score is, we're going to make a run. We always go to a third set, and we wanted to get this one done in two tonight."
Ottawa tied the score at 18, but Dixon wouldn't be denied. A service error gave the Duchesses a 19-18 lead, then a Sztochmal kill and a Duncan ace pushed the lead to three. Rozek answered an Ottawa spike with kill of her own, then seniors Sztochmal and Maggie Provo combined for a block before Provo's second stuff finished things off.
"We passed poorly all night, and you can't use your hitters if you can't get passes to the setters," Ottawa coach Sue Staus said. "That was the difference, especially down the stretch."
Rozek had seven kills, five points, two aces and three digs for the Duchesses, while Rotella added six kills, eight points, three aces and a team-high eight digs. Duncan finished with four kills, two blocks, four points and two aces, while Gascoigne had 18 assists, eight points and three digs.
Jordan Hayne had six kills and five digs, and Jessica Wignes had five kills, five digs and four points to pace the Pirates. Tayah Guerrero had seven assists, six points and two aces, Jill Wignes finished with six assists, seven points an three aces, and Emily Hackler led the defense with nine digs.
Dixon's victory secured third place by itself, behind only LaSalle-Peru and Sterling. The Duchesses beat every conference foe except the Cavaliers.
"It's exciting for us seniors to end our high school careers this way," Rozek said, "and really build on the previous years and keep it going for the years to come."
"This gives us some confidence for the postseason," Duncan added, "and if we can feed off of this, hopefully we can make some noise and make something happen at regionals."
Dixon def. Ottawa 25-23, 25-19
Star of the match: Amy Rotella, Dixon, 6 kills, 8 digs, 8 points, 3 aces
Key performers: Caitlin Rozek, Dixon, 7 kills, 5 points, 2 aces, 3 digs; Lexy Duncan, Dixon, 4 kills, 2 blocks, 4 points, 2 aces; Rachel Gascoigne, Dixon, 18 assists, 8 points, 3 digs; Jordan Hayne, Ottawa, 6 kills, 5 digs; Jessica Wignes, Ottawa, 5 kills, 5 digs, 4 points
Up next: Class 3A Stillman Valley Regional, Dixon vs. Winnebago, 6 p.m. Monday