Close-out sets are often a vulnerability for even the most dominant high school volleyball teams. Win set one, win set two, and then lady spikers can get too cocky or take their foot of the gas pedal and lose that pivotal third set.
But that hasn’t been the case this fall at West Geauga, where the Lady Wolverines are unbeaten at 10-0 with nine of their victories coming by way of 3-0 sweeps under fifth-year head Amber Baker.
The West Geauga spikers’ lone exception was a five-set match against Edgewood in a game they lost the opening frame, 27-25, before putting away the Lady Warriors in the final stanza, 15-12, on Sept. 24 in Ashtabula. West G 5-foot-9 senior middle Lauren Lance had a team-high 14 kills in that match.
“I’ve been really hard on them this year about mental toughness,” Baker said about winning every third set her team has played. “I actually use that phrase a lot – never taking your foot off the gas, no mercy and not playing to any other team’s level. We want to always stay at our level.
“And in the Edgewood game, we faltered from that. We could have beat them in three, because we were really weak in that first set. Mentally, we were struggling so bad in wanting to stay undefeated that we let our nerves take over in that game.”
The Lady Wolverines’ 10-0 start this fall comes on the heels of a 7-12 campaign that ended in the first round of the playoffs last season, which included a pair of losses against rival Chagrin Falls.
In a Chagrin Valley Conference road collision against Chagrin Falls last Thursday, the West G spikers put the Lady Tigers away with a dominant 25-14 third set. In a previous 3-0 victory against Chagrin Falls on Sept. 3, West Geauga’s most dominant set was 25-18.
During last week’s rematch, the Chagrin girls struggled getting side-outs against the hot serving of West G’s Lance, 15 points with two aces, 5-foot-5 senior setter Brooke Henriksen, 13 points, and 5-foot-5 junior defensive specialist Olivia Bartlett, 12 points with two aces.
West Geauga 5-foot-4 senior libero Carlee Stilliana and 5-foot-5 junior defensive specialist Stephanie Meyer also recorded aces.
“They’ve been cranking in 12 to 20 points from the service line every game,” Baker said. “They’re mostly just keeping teams out of system. When we’re on the serve, we’re just so dominant. Even if it’s not an ace, a lot of times they are not returned. So, to serve that many points in a match of three games is insane.”
Defensively, West Geauga handled a versatile Chagrin Falls attack that featured three hitters with 20-plus attempts and a fourth hitter with 14 attempts.
But through the blocking efforts of West Geauga 5-foot-6 setter Hannah Laurich, who had five solo rejections, as well as Lance and 5-foot-8 senior middle Erin Piczer, who combined for six more blocks, Chagrin was limited to a .118 hitting clip. Lady Tiger 5-foot-11 senior middle Lily Weinberger led her team with 10 kills.
“We’re very confident in our block and do a lot of work in practice putting ourselves in those situations where our defense doesn’t know where the ball is coming from,” Baker said. “So, we go through that all the time. And it’s just honestly coming down to be mentally prepared for anything and not giving up on any play or any ball.”
West Geauga is almost always undersized, with the Lady Wolverines front row of 5-9 Lance, 5-8 Piczer and 5-9 sophomore outside hitter Kaitlyn Danszczak representing their threats at the net. That trio combined for 25 kills against Chagrin Falls.
But the X-factor is Laurich, the 5-foot-6 setter who had five solo blocks in addition to 18 assists against Chagrin.
“It is ridiculous,” Baker said. “I know it doesn’t seem right, but you have not seen timing like this out of this girl. She has such a vision. She is always ready. She always sets the block in the perfect spot. She’s just one of those players that gets it. She anticipates it. She watches all the time. We’re always watching the ball.
“But there’s certain players on any team that just have that extra sense, and they just zone in on something so much faster than someone else, and that’s Hannah.”
While Laurich was a headliner against Chagrin, West Geauga doesn’t run a traditional five-one system. Instead, the Lady Wolverines have two setters on the floor at all times in both Laurich and Henriksen.
In addition to her 13 service points, Henriksen distributed seven assists and recorded a team-high seven digs against Chagrin Falls.
“My setters are both amazing defensive players, and they’re so good,” Baker said. “So, I always have a setter in the front row and the back row, and that’s like having two quarterbacks in the game. It’s absolutely amazing. It makes things run so smooth, and it gives everybody that calmness on the court.
“For a couple of years now, I’ve been calling them ketchup and mustard, because they are the ultimate combination. They’re like sisters on and off the court. They share that responsibility without competition or envy in any way.”
So far this season, Laurich is averaging 3.3 assists per set, and Henriksen is averaging 2.7 assists per set, which not only displays a balance between them but also shows that the Lady Wolverines are scoring points on a variety of fashions – blocks, serves and simply forcing opponents into errors.
Height aside, Baker said she really doesn’t have any weakness on the floor this year, and it’s showed through their match results.
“We have a lot of talent this year,” the coach said. “They believe in each other so much that there’s just a level of comfort and smoothness on the court that we haven’t had in a few years, so it’s been excellent to watch. We’re relentless. It all revolves around the fact that we are physically ready and mentally tough this season.”
On Tuesday evening, West Geauga remained unbeaten with a 3-0 home sweep against Perry.
Up next, the Lady Wolverines will host Hawken School at 6:30 p.m. Oct. 8.