SHABBONA – The smiles and chemistry that Newman normally demonstrates on the volleyball court turned to frustrated and confused looks Thursday night in the 1A Indian Creek Regional final.
The smiles and momentum were all on the side of Leland-Earlville, which defeated the Comets 25-20, 25-22 to claim its first regional title since 1995.
“Leland-Earlville played with a lot more heart,” Newman coach Debbi Kelly said. “I think we played very tentative, sending a lot of balls over the net just to be safe, and that’s not our game.”
The Comets were looking for their fourth regional title in 5 years and second in a row, but dug themselves holes too deep to climb out of in both sets. L-E went up 7-3 in the first set and 10-4 in the second, both resulting in timeouts for Newman.
“The pressure just mounted, and usually we can get ourselves out of it,” Kelly said. “At this time of the year, you can’t play not to lose; you have to play to win.”
“If we have the serve, we need to push through with a string of points,” L-E’s Alex Koontz said. “That’s our goal.”
Newman (19-11-3) never led at any point in the match, but tied things up on two separate occasions. However, the Panthers closed out both sets strong, and the Comets couldn’t provide an answer.
A stuff block by Jadyn Pickert, a Kylie Koontz ace, and a Julia Niles kill gave the Panthers an early lead in the opening set. Back-to-back blocks by Hannah McCarty and Hannah Wilson capped a 3-0 run for Newman, and a 6-2 stretch cut the Comets’ deficit to 14-12. The two teams were knotted at 18 before L-E closed the set on a 7-2 run.
Consecutive aces from Emily Cook put the Panthers up 6-2 early in the second, and sloppy play from Newman increased L-E’s lead to 10-4.
The Comets responded with three straight points out of a timeout, and another stuff block from Hannah Wilson cut the Newman deficit to 14-13.
Leland-Earlville (21-14) scored three straight points after the Comets tied the set at 18, and were at match point before one last run by Newman. A hitting error and a kill from Hannah Wilson cut it to 24-22, but the Koontz connection provided the finishing kill, with Alex setting Kylie for a kill to end it.
The twin sophomores combined for eight blocks, limiting some open options Newman is used to having on the attack.
“One thing we focused on all year was blocking,” Kylie Koontz said, “especially us since we’re the tallest ones on the team.”
Alex Koontz finished with 10 assists, six digs and two kills to go along with her match-high five blocks. Kylie Koontz added six kills, two assists, an ace, and a dig to go with her three blocks.
Niles had five digs and four kills, while Cook added seven digs, two kills and the pair of second-set aces for the Panthers. Libero Amanda Myers recorded a match-high 16 digs, while Lynsey Nelson pitched in 11 digs and an ace. Kelsey Chapman finished with six digs, four assists and an ace.
Cassidy Wilson led the Comets with nine kills, and added six digs. Hannah Wilson played strong at the net with four kills, four blocks and a pair of digs. Aidan Brown had five kills and three digs.
Madison Craft passed out nine assists and had nine digs for Newman. Lauren Wilson finished with 12 digs, nine assists and a kill, while McCarty pitched in with three blocks, three digs and an assist. Baylei Ferris recorded eight digs.
The Comets had the chance to play in the sectional semifinals at home against Keith Country Day, but will instead watch the Panthers play on their home court instead. It was a bitter end for an accomplished group of Newman seniors, a few of whome were key factors in past regional titles.
“For the seniors, it doesn’t change what they’ve done with the conference championships and big games they’ve played in,” Kelly said. “It was just a bad night to not have our best.”
1A Indian Creek Regional final
Leland-Earlville def. Newman 25-20, 25-22
Star of the match: Alex Koontz, L-E, 10 assists, 6 digs, 5 blocks, 2 kills;
Key performers: Cassidy Wilson, Newman, 9 kills, 6 digs; Madison Craft, Newman, 9 assists, 9 digs; Kylie Koontz, L-E, 6 kills, 3 blocks, 2 assists, ace, dig; Amanda Myers, L-E, 16 digs