STERLING – Taylor Murphy found herself in the crosshairs early in the second game Thursday night at Musgrove Fieldhouse.
The United Township sophomore outside hitter rotated to the middle of the court on defense just as Sterling's Kaylee Martin began her ascent from the floor to hit a monstrous kill.
Each time, the ball exploded off Martin's hand straight at Murphy. The force of the ball knocked Murphy backward to the floor, and the ball bounced harmlessly away for a Sterling point.
The second of these instances started a six-point run, in what turned out to be a 25-22, 25-15 season-opening win for the Warriors.
Sterling had been slated to start the season Tuesday at Yorkville, but that match was postponed because of construction on Yorkville's gym.
"I, for one, was super pumped to get out here tonight," Martin said. "I was bummed when Tuesday's match was called off. I was just ready to get out here, and prove what kind of team we can be."
Martin, who is starting her second year on varsity, was dominant at the net. She had 17 kills and a block. Most of those kills were set up by Jordyn Koett, who had 15 assists.
"We had girls getting to digs, and getting the ball to our setters in perfect position," Martin said. "From there, the setters were getting it to the hitter. It became bump-set-kill, and they couldn't stop it."
Sterling jumped out to a 19-12 lead behind Martin and a series of hitting errors by the Panthers.
United Township turned the momentum, feeding the ball to 6-foot middle hitter Sadie Roberts for three kills. That run helped the Panthers cut the Sterling lead to one point at 21-20.
Roberts finished with seven kills for the match.
Sterling coach Dale Dykeman called timeout with the team ahead by a point to refocus and make some changes.
"They had made some adjustments to what we were doing, and we had to change what we were doing, and where we were setting up the block," Dykeman said. "I think mentally, the girls did a great job of not panicking, and focusing on making the adjustments."
Out of the timeout, Alli Olson set Martin for a kill. Megan Loos had a block on the next point to put Sterling up 23-20.
United Township scored twice more, before kills by Martin and Koett closed the game.
"They had some tall girls and were quick, so we had to find the best places to set up to hit," Jailyn Borum said. "When we did, Kaylee got really rolling, and that opened everything up for the rest of us."
Sterling went up 10-3 in Game 2, and allowed United Township to get only as close as five points (15-10) the rest of the way.
"Once we made the adjustments, our middle hitters really started to come up," Dykeman said. "You saw Jailyn from the outside make some hits. They had to focus so much on Kaylee that it took them out of their defense, and there wasn't much they were able to do after that."
Star of the match: Kaylee Martin, Sterling, 17 kills, 1 block
Key performers: Sadie Roberts, United Township, 7 kills, 4 service points; Jailyn Borum, Sterling, 5 kills, 5 service points
Up next: Sterling at Rock Island, 7 p.m. Thursday