DIXON – The Sauk Valley Community College volleyball team began receiving votes this week in the NJCAA Division II poll, and did nothing Wednesday night to hurt its chances for increased recognition.
The Skyhawks were in control most of the way in rolling to a 25-17, 25-16, 25-10 victory against Highland in the SVCC gym.
Sauk Valley (20-11, 7-1 Arrowhead Conference) reached the 20-win plateau for the eighth consecutive season under 10th-year head coach Jay Howell. A year ago, the Skyhawks finished 20-20 and were absent from the national polls after being a fixture there in some powerhouse seasons.
After winning for the 13th time in the last 15 matches, the Skyhawks are returning to elite status.
“That’s huge news,” sophomore middle blocker Hannah Wilson said. “Last year we kind of had that taken away, and now we’re bringing it back, and it feels really, really good.”
The first two sets on Wednesday followed a similar pattern. Highland (10-11, 3-5) was able to hang around until about the midway point of the set before Sauk Valley took over.
In Set 1, the Cougars jumped out to a 6-3 lead, and were up 12-11 after a kill from freshman middle blocker Megan Packard.
The Skyhawks responded with an 8-1 run highlighted by three straight aces from Aleah Wight and capped by a kill from Wilson. Highland used both of its timeouts during that stretch in an attempt to stem the tide.
The Cougars did claw back to within 19-16 on back-to-back kills from Packard, but the Skyhawks closed it out with 6-1 run. Juliana Rotella had three kills in that stretch, including a set-ender after a Highland overpass.
In Set 2, Packard had five early kills to help stake the Cougars to a 10-7 lead, and it was 12-12 after a stuff block by Highland’s Jenna Brunner. The Skyhawks soon took charge.
Highland hitting errors were sandwiched around kills by Sauk’s Shannon Lytle and Jaida Dean to make it 16-12. After Highland went on a 3-0 run capped by a kill from Packard, the Skyhawks put the game on ice by scoring eight straight points. The Cougars had four hitting errors and two bad sets during that span.
With the score 24-15, Highland’s Riley Kleckler put down a kill, but teammate Ahlasia Kloepping followed with a hitting error to end the set.
In Set 3, Sauk Valley raced out to a 9-1 lead and was never in any sort of danger.
Highland coach Beth Groshans was pleased with her club’s play at the beginning of the first two sets, but it wasn’t nearly enough to hang with SVCC the entire way.
“We have to just rise to the occasion,” Groshans said. “When you have a quick start, they’re going to make adjustments, and we need to make adjustments back. We didn’t make adjustments back at all. They got stuff in system a lot better than us, and they had more options. We became pretty one-dimensional, and you can’t do that in volleyball.”
That one dimension was Packard, a freshman from Lena-Winslow. She put down 12 kills, and Kleckler added five. Ella Brunner finished with eight digs.
For the Skyhawks, Lexi Greve put down nine kills, Wilson had six kills and three blocks, and Lytle had four kills and two blocks. Dean and Rotella each had three kills, with Rotella adding nine digs.
Madison Craft had a big match with 12 assists and six aces, Wight had 11 digs, and Emily Shrimplin dished 11 assists. Hannah McCarty chipped in three aces and two blocks.
“I think we just cleaned up our passing and got a little sharper,” SVCC coach Jay Howell said. “I thought what turned it around the middle of the second set and the third was our blocking. We started closing our blocks, and that was a big advantage for us.”
For Wilson, it was just a matter of the Skyhawks finding their rhythm.
“We were kind of playing down to their level the first two sets, and then we kicked it into high gear,” Wilson said. “That’s what we’ve been doing the last 2 weeks.”
Sauk Valley def. Highland 25-17, 25-16, 25-10
Star of the match: Lexi Greve, Sauk Valley, 9 kills
Key performers: Madison Craft, Sauk, 12 assists, 6 aces; Megan Packard, Highland, 12 kills
Up next: Sauk Valley vs. Spoon River, 2 p.m. Friday & vs. Rock Valley, 4 p.m. Friday (both at Rock Valley)