FREEBURG — Asked about his team's occasional struggles Thursday in a Cahokia Conference volleyball win over Freeburg, Central Cougars coach Jim Cook found a bright spot.
"Much happier than last year," Cook said after the 25-13, 25-18 victory over the Midgets. "After the Mater Dei game we were looking at 3-9 last year and now we're 9-2."
Riding 10 kills from senior Maddie Timmermann and strong serving by Sophie Rickhoff, Taylor Rakers, Lauren Willis and others, the Cougars (9-2 overall, 3-0 in conference play) caught fire at the end of each set.
They trailed 12-11 in the first set and were tied 17-17 in the second, but each time regained traction and then drove straight through to the finish line.
"That seems to be a problem with us, we don't start very fast in the sets but we've been closing them out," Cook said. "It's been working."
It seems to work better when the powerful right arm of Timmermann is forcing its will on opponents.
"We probably had times where we should have went to her and tried to get this thing a little more under control," Cook said. "We've been trying to work Kendra Wilken into the hitting a little more and I think they tried a few sets to her.
"In the second set we weren't passing very well at the beginning. They were getting off some better shots, but we just weren't passing well."
A seven-point service run by Rickhoff and five-point run, including two aces by Rakers, helped Central pull away in the first game. The Cougars outscored Freeburg 14-2 to close it out, with the Midgets committing too many unforced errors as far as coach Lesa Bolt was concerned.
She counted 12 of them just in the first game.
"The second game our goal was to minimize those and we minimized some," said Bolt, whose team fell to 10-7 overall and 2-1 in league play. "We start off strong and toward the end of the games our youth and inexperience in closing games is still kind of a learning factor."
That was the trend Thursday and the more experienced Cougars were more than happy to follow it.
Led by senior Abby Lealaimatafao, who had eight kills on the night, the Midgets started strong in the second game. They scored four quick points before two kills by Timmermann settled Central down.
The teams traded short scoring bursts, but the Cougars seemed to have too much firepower.
A 3-2 performance last weekend at the always tough Nike Crossroads Classic in Effingham preceded a week that saw Central beat two tough conference foes in Columbia and Freeburg before heading to Mater Dei on Saturday.
"This is the week that's really tough on us," Cook said.
Bolt watched her club catch fire at times and ride momentum, only to come up a little short.
"I don't think it's a loss of focus," she said. "We're playing and we play strong, and then I'm going to say maybe if we make an error or two it affects us a little bit.
"Again, that's our youth. We need to not have to worry about those and just move on to the next point."