Even with a combined 36 kills by juniors Rachel Pranger and Kate Martin on Tuesday, the Edwardsville Tigers volleyball team inflicted just as much damage with soft shots to the vacant corners of the Belleville West defense.
The dominant combination helped Edwardsville claim its first outright Southwestern Conference title since 2012 with a 22-25, 25-17, 25-19 victory over the Maroons.
It marked the ninth time Edwardsville has either won or shared the SWC title since 2007 and the victory also broke Belleville West’s three-year run of winning or sharing the title.
“It means a lot, that was one of the goals of the girls this year was to take conference and to not share it with anybody,” Edwardsville coach Jami Parker said after her 25-4 squad completed a 7-0 run through the conference. “You saw the excitement in the huddle after the game, they were pretty excited to accomplish that goal.”
Pranger had 21 kills and Martin had 15 kills and 13 digs. Edwardsville setter Rachel Verdun added 42 assists and 16 digs and Nicki Meyer had 15 digs. Belleville West (21-7 overall, 5-1 in the league) got nine kills each from Kaylee Hanger and Nikki Gaskill, while Katherine Koch contributed seven kills, 21 assists and 15 digs.
West seemed poised to deliver a knockout punch after winning the first set 25-22 with solid offense and defense.
It means a lot, that was one of the goals of the girls this year was to take conference and to not share it with anybody. Edwardsville coach Jami Parker on winning the conference title
Then Pranger and Martin exploded for seven kills each in the second set, many of them coming on well-placed tip shots that kept finding holes in the back corners out of the reach of West defenders.
With the threat of powerful kills at the net always in their minds, the Maroons were pushed back onto their heels at times.
“Once Rachel (Pranger) did it the first time and the second time, we were just like ‘If we need a shot, that’s going to be open,”’ Martin said. “So we just kept going to it until they got it, just kept using it.”
They used it with extreme effectiveness.
“We were pretty excited after the first set and then the second set they made some adjustments,” West coach Lauren DeGirolamo said. “They picked apart our defense with tips and I always preach to the girls if a team’s going to beat us, let’s let them beat us with hard kills; let’s not get beat on tips — and that’s what they did.
“They placed it in the right spots and swung occasionally to keep us on our toes.”
Parker, who recently collected her 400th career win, said the tips are something the Tigers have been working on in practice.
“That’s something we’ve been working on really hard in the gym, just taking shots and kid of being smart with the ball,” she said. “They came out here tonight and they implemented it really well.”
Edwardsville built a 17-9 lead in the decisive third set, only to watch West respond a bit later with a six-point run to cut the Tigers’ lead to 18-17. The Maroons were playing light-out defense, stretching several points into long rallies with excellent plays.
They picked apart our defense with tips and I always preach to the girls if a team’s going to beat us, let’s let them beat us with hard kills; let’s not get beat on tips — and that’s what they did. West coach Lauren DeGirolamo
A kill by Martin and two kills by freshman Maria Smith helped the Tigers regain momentum and they were able to close out the win.
“I was proud of the girls,” Parker said. “They came right back out in the second game and they were ready to go, they weren’t intimidated by (the first set loss) and they were very level. This is a big match. It would be easy to be emotional tonight, but they were back down to business in the second game so that’s good.”
Parker said one of her team’s most impressive strengths is an ability to put emotions aside when it counts.
“We knew after we lost that first one we needed to come out even harder as a team, come together and just be smarter,” Martin said. “It meant a lot to get (the conference title) by ourselves and really win it. It felt good.”