LANARK – The start couldn’t have been any better for Eastland, nor any worse for AFC. Even the Cougars players couldn’t believe what they were seeing when they looked up at the scoreboard early on in the first set of Thursday’s Class 1A Eastland Regional final in Lanark.
Eastland jumped out to a huge lead to start the night, then fought off a valiant comeback attempt by the Raiders in the second set for a 25-10, 25-20 victory, and a fourth straight regional title.
The Cougars (17-15) got kills from freshman Karlie Krogman and senior Katie Krogman in the first three points, then a Danielle Rush kill and a Katie Krogman block later on for an 8-0 lead right out of the gate. After an Eastland hitting error, Katie Krogman slammed another kill, then Gabby Snyder closed out a run of three straight service points with an ace for a 13-1 lead.
“I looked at the scoreboard, then said to Mac [Byer], ‘Is this really happening? Because it seems way too good to be true,’” Eastland senior hitter Katie Krogman said. “Everything was going perfect, and we couldn’t do anything better than we did in that first set.”
The fast start was just what first-year coach Kelsey Pierce had stressed to her team prior to the match, and she was thrilled with the intensity and focus the Cougars displayed from the get-go.
“I told the girls that we had to come out strong, but I think even they were surprised by how well we did that,” said Pierce, who became the third different Eastland coach to claim a regional crown in those 4 years. “I heard someone sit down after they subbed to the bench and say, ‘Oh my gosh, I didn’t even realize the score was 13-2.’ And that’s a good thing for a coach to hear, because that just means they’re focused and just out there competing, and that’s awesome.”
AFC finally got a little offense going as first set wore on, and despite the 25-10 score, longtime AFC coach Jan Cupp – in her last match before retiring – thought she saw a spark from her Raiders with the late push.
“We tried to fight back, find a little rhythm before going to the next set, and I thought we did that,” Cupp said.
Pierce told her Cougars the same thing, and warned her team about getting complacent.
“I told the girls that AFC is not going to be a team that rolls over and dies,” said Pierce, whose mom, Kristy, led Eastland to three state titles in 34 seasons – and was sitting on the opposite bench as an AFC assistant. “AFC is tough and scrappy, and they’re going to bring the ball over the net and they’re going to try to find a way to win. So we had to hold that momentum through the entire match.”
The message clearly got through to the Cougars, as they jumped out to a quick 10-3 lead.
But the Raiders rallied. Jaynee Prestegaard had a block and two kills in a four-point span, then she added another kill to get within 16-11, then racked up four consecutive points – the last one an ace – before Madeline Prestegaard’s kill made it 16-15 and forced an Eastland timeout.
With Eastland leading 19-15, a Madeline Prestegaard kill was changed to a lift call after she was so high over the ball on her spike that the officials deemed that she guided it to the ground instead of hit it, and that swung momentum in favor of Eastland.
“She’s so tall and strong, and it looks like that sometimes,” Cupp said. “I wouldn’t have a problem if she had followed through, but she stopped her swing like we’ve taught her, so it was tough. That kind of stopped our momentum cold.”
But the Raiders weren’t done yet. Trailing 22-16 after a Sage Walrath kill, AFC scored four straight points on Eastland hitting errors to get within 22-20.
“Things snowballed on us a couple of times, but the girls didn’t stop playing hard. They kept fighting and tried to come back, but it was a little late then,” said Cupp, whose Raiders were without two-time all-conference setter Emily Shrimplin, who suffered an ACL injury 2 weeks ago. “We just couldn’t find any rhythm, we couldn’t get our passing down, and when we couldn’t pass it up to the net, that really threw our whole offense out, and we really count on that.”
The out-of-system plays were the difference in the match, as Eastland managed to handle them a lot more successfully than AFC.
“We’ve worked a lot on scramble balls,” Katie Krogman said, “and I think we’re calmer now that we can play that third ball over the net – and do it a lot smarter than just throwing over a free ball for them to get right into system.
“And having that cushion was very nice, and I think we’ve been working well at teams coming back on us a little bit more. I think we felt a little more comfortable with that tonight, just focusing on getting the next serve in, the next pass up, and then we’re good.”
Katie Krogman had five kills, three blocks and eight digs for the Cougars, while Walrath added four kills. Erin Henze set for eight assists, Erica Dambman dished seven more, and libero Snyder had 11 digs and two aces. Jordan Miller chipped in 10 points, two aces, and six digs.
Madeline and Jaynee Prestegaard each had four kills and a block for AFC, and Camdyn Penick had eight assists.
1A Eastland Regional final
Eastland def. AFC 25-10, 25-20
Star of the match: Katie Krogman, Eastland, 5 kills, 3 blocks, 8 digs, 1 ace
Key performers: Sage Walrath, Eastland, 4 kills; Gabby Snyder, Eastland, 11 digs, 2 aces; Madeline & Jaynee Prestegaard, AFC, 4 kills & 1 block each
Up next: 1A Newman Sectional semifinal, Eastland vs. Durand, 5:30 p.m. Monday