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For the second time in less than a week, the Elgin Public/Pope John volleyball team rallied from a 2-0 deficit against Elkhorn Valley to win in five sets.
"This time of year all that matters is winning and we did that tonight," stated EPPJ coach Tina Thiele-Blecher. "I was nervous in that second set that they were thinking 'Oh it happened Friday night (EPPJ rallies to win) and it will happen again.' I told the girls you can't bank on that and you have to start playing ball. We got a little fire and we settled down. We were so tense in the first two sets, a couple of bad errors and you could see them freaking out a little bit."
The Lady Wolfpack rallied to defeat EV to finish third in the Niobrara Valley Conference tournament last Friday, and Tuesday's come-from-behind victory sealed a spot in the Class D-1 district title match.
"This was a tough one," said EV coach Emily Vaughn. 'We knew it would not be easy, but you are never prepared to lose in five (sets). This game is such a mental game, and I felt like sometimes tonight we lacked the confidence because we weren't very consistent. We wanted to keep attacking, but I felt we had a hard time making adjustments. Credit EPPJ and their defense. We had seen it before, but they really didn't let any balls drop."
The win moves EPPJ one win closer to a state tournament appearance.
"We are always going to try to keep getting better each and every day," commented EPPJ senior Anna Heilhecker. "We're going to keep pushing each other. encouraging each other. and we're going to keep going."
The Lady Falcons opened the match with a 25-21 set win.
Trailing by two, EV used a 13-2 run to claim an 18-9 lead. EPPJ rallied to draw within one, but the Lady Falcons held on and won the set on a Hannah Ollendick kill.
A hot start propelled the green and black to a 25-13 triumph in set two.
EV scored 12 of the first 16 points in the set and cruised to a 12-point win.
"I told them we just have to play volleyball," Thiele-Blecher said. "We're so tense with one little error. It's passing, setting and hitting. One of my little things (I say) is it's a cowhide with air, play volleyball. They found it in them to settle down and play."
The rally was on for EPPJ. Tied at 15 in the third set, the Lady Wolfpack ended the set on a 10-2 run and captured their first set win, 25-17, on a Kaylee Martinsen kill.
"We all talked to each other and knew this wasn't our last game," said EPPJ senior Allyson Wemhoff. "We've battled back in five sets before and we knew we had to bring the energy in the last three sets. All the girls delivered and it was really fun. We pulled together and played like the team we are. We love each other, so it was easy."
The red and white once again surged past the Lady Falcons with a 13-4 run to end the fourth set and win, 25-16. Senior Grace Rittscher served the final seven points of the set and Kayce Kallhoff forced a decisive fifth set with a kill.
"Coach (Thiele-Blecher) really stresses serves," Rittscher noted. "Every day at practice, we practice a lot on serves. I knew I had to get it over and in, over and in and over and in. Coach told us in the huddle every time to focus on over and in. It just works I guess."
The packed crowd at Norfolk Catholic was treated to a volleyball masterpiece in the final set.
Elkhorn Valley opened the set with a 4-1 run thanks to two blocks by Sierra Rystrom and a kill and block by Olivia Nall, but EPPJ answered with an 8-1 run.
Trailing 11-7, the Lady Falcons scored five of the next six points to tie the match at 12 thanks to three kills and an ace by Ollendick during the run.
The Lady Wolfpack ended the set on a 3-0 run and completed the comeback on a Martinsen kill to win the match, and go a perfect 6-0 against Antelope County squads in 2018.
"I've never felt more excited in my life," Martinsen said. "It feels great to beat EV for the third time, even though I love playing against those girls. Once the ball hit the floor, I couldn't believe it. We are one win away from state and I can't wait."
Ollendick led the Lady Falcons with 16 kills, two aces, two blocks and 35 digs. Rystrom recorded eight kills, three aces, two blocks, two assists and 22 digs, Amber Miller accounted for three kills, seven aces, 35 digs and 28 assists, Nall tallied nine kills, six blocks, six assists and 34 digs, Haley Fleetwood added two aces, two blocks and 19 digs and Kaylee Bacon had three blocks.
It was a total team effort for EPPJ in the win. Three different players recorded at least 12 kills led by Martinsen with 17 kills, six blocks, 25 digs and an ace. Haley Zegers accumulated 14 kills, 13 digs and five blocks, Kallhoff pitched in 12 kills, an ace and three blocks, Wemhoff recorded 23 digs and 38 assists, Rittscher added 16 digs and two aces and Heilhecker collected more than 28 digs.
"It's huge for us this year that we don't ever rely on just one person," Thiele-Blecher said. "The mental toughness of every girl knowing that the set can come to me or the expectation to get the serve over and in. It's huge for our team. It was definitely a team effort tonight and they did that."
Elkhorn Valley ends its season with an 18-11 record. Miller, Rystrom and Ollendick are the lone seniors on the Lady Falcons squad, but are three hard players to replace.
"As far as the season goes, I know this isn't how and when we wanted it to end," Vaughn said. "Especially the seniors, they wanted another district championship. They really left their mark. They have helped us build our program up again and are competitors and push the team to get better every day. They set the bar pretty high, and have been fun to watch grow as volleyball players and off the court as well."
Elgin Public/Pope John (21-11) awaits its district finals opponent. The Class D-2 district finals are schedule for Saturday and the winner advances to the state tournament next week.
"We'll take one game at a time and we're two-thirds of the way there (from qualifying for state)," Thiele-Blecher concluded. "Hopefully we get a little film on whoever we're playing and we just have to get out there and play our kind of ball. We can't worry about so much on who's on the other side of the net. We have to play Wolfpack ball on our side of the net."
EPPJ 21 13 25 25 15
EV 25 25 17 16 12
Elgin Public/Pope John - Haley Zegers 14k, 5b, 13d; Kaylee Martinsen 17k, 1a, 6b, 25d, 1sa; Allyson Wemhoff 1k, 1a, 23d, 38sa; Lexi Bode 4k, 2b; Grace Rittscher 2a, 16d, 2sa; Kayce Kallhoff 12k, 1a, 3b, 14d; Harlie Bode 4k, 7d, 1sa; Kirsten Krebs 7d, 4sa; Anna Heilhecker 28d.
Elkhorn Valley - Olivia Nall 9k, 6b, 34d, 6sa; Bria Gale 13d; Carney Black 1k, 1b, 9d; Haley Fleetwood 2a, 2b, 19d; Amber Miller 3k, 7a, 35d, 28sa; Hannah Ollendick 16k, 2a, 2b, 35d; Kaylee Bacon 2k, 1a, 3b, 6d; Sierra Rystrom 8k, 3a, 2b, 22d, 2sa.