PAW PAW – Kayci Howell couldn't help but laugh as she discussed two of her highlights in Newman's 25-21, 22-25, 25-14 victory over AFC on Tuesday in the 1A Paw Paw Regional title match.
There was the second-hit tip-kill in the first set, an example of her expert decision-making when a pass draws her into the net. Howell giggled when asked about the crafty play, her second tip-kill in three points – both off Allison Shipman assists – that capped a 4-0 burst and gave the Comets (21-13) a 21-13 lead.
"I don't get many kills," said Howell, who had four. "It was a highlight, and I think a little lucky. But just last night, we worked on two-hits a lot. I just saw the opportunity. When I'm tight to the net, it's either I'm setting, or I'm taking it over. Taking it over was my best bet on that one."
In the third set, Howell finally blocked Lexie Fore, who rifled a match-high 16 kills in her last high school match. Her sound stuff of the hard-hitting senior on the right side gave Newman an 18-9 lead, moments before Bree de Long carved out one of her two aces.
"Yeah, that was my No. 1 highlight for the night," Howell said. "I had been looking for it all night. It kept going through my hands. She hits hard. Really hard."
But Comets coach Debbi Kelly, ironically, took a highlight from the Set 2 setback, in which Fore had eight kills.
"AFC really pushed us, and that's something we needed just to find out how much energy we have and what level we're going to keep playing at," she said.
Fore took her first intimidatingly full swing and painted the back line to give AFC (13-21) an 8-7 lead in Set 2. Later, Fore smoked three kills in a row. She finished a lengthy point by scorching the left boundary for a 15-12 lead, then hammered a kill off a broken play before capping another long point by rattling a kill between a double-block and the net. A Newman hitting error put AFC up 19-12.
Fore also had two block kills and eight digs.
"My adrenaline was up that whole game," Fore said. "It was amazing."
Back-to-back stuff kills by Emily Mairs gave AFC a 22-16 lead. Newman scrapped to get within 23-22, but the Raiders dug in. Cassidy Koning used her off hand for a lefty kill down the right side, and the Comets were called for four hits – the first seemingly a block by Howell – to end the set.
Koning had 11 digs to go with four block kills and five spike kills, and Katie Sondgeroth set 15 assists to lead AFC.
For Newman, de Long had seven kills, eight service points and two aces, and Aubree Schmitt had eight kills and a block. Howell racked up a match-high 17 assists to go with 11 service points and a pair of aces.
"She's a very good setter," de Long said. "She knows when to take it over in two, when to set it up and when there are two blockers."
But if energy was a category on the stat sheet, no one could touch Howell.
"She's like the cheerleader of the team," de Long continued. "She brings us up and makes jokes. Toward the end of the last game, she really had us going."
Howell could sense in the huddle before the final set that her Comets were poised to make a statement.
"After the second game, actually, we were energetic," Howell said. "We seniors knew it could be our last game, and we didn't want to go out the way we played in that second game. So we came out really strong in the third."
The Comets seized a 5-1 lead behind Shipman's service. Spinning the ball in her left hand before lofting it, she notched two aces and set the template for the third set: pin the Raiders deep to keep Fore at bay.
"It's not the double-blocks," AFC coach Jan Cupp said. "Lexie faces that all the time. The key was that our passing was behind the 10-foot line. It's more or less getting the passes off the net, so the set was way off the net. That led to not getting on top of the ball."
Up 6-3, the Comets earned a long, deflating point, Julie Hurd first running down a ball alongside the Newman bench, a step and a half from Kelly. With neither team able to get down a kill, Sara Nysather extended the point with one of her 12 digs, near the boundary in front of the Newman bench. It led to an AFC hitting error.
Late in the match, Howell set to classmate Megan Rosengren, who banged her 12th and final kill off a block for a 20-10 lead.
"My gosh, she was on fire tonight," Kelly said of Rosengren.
As unfazed as they were after a first-set loss, the Raiders (13-21) took the next three points to make it 20-13.
"Even though the record doesn't show it, they've never quit all season," Cupp said.
But Rachel Humphreys had two of her four kills off the bench in the last five points.
"My heart was just pounding, but I'm also cool, calm and collected," the junior said.
She spiked a kill to make it 22-13, then tipped one to go up 24-14. Then de Long hammered a kill off a block, sealing Kelly's first regional title in her 4 years at Newman.
But it was de Long who gripped the plaque, her knuckles white, after the Comets broke their post-game huddle.
"What can I say?" she said. "It's a pretty exciting thing."
Star of the match: Kayci Howell, Newman, 4 kills, 17 assists, 11 service points, 2 aces, block kill
Stars of the game: Lexie Fore, AFC, 18 kills, 2 block kills, 8 digs; Megan Rosengren, Newman, 12 kills
Up next: 1A Pearl City sectional semifinal – Newman vs. Stockton, 6 p.m. Tuesday