Running off long winning streaks to start the volleyball season is nothing new for the Columbia Eagles.
The Eagles won their first 10 games last season, started out 19-0 in 2014 and were 25-0-1 through 26 games during their run to the super-sectional in 2012.
Now 14-0, the Eagles are gaining confidence with each win and are hoping to turn this regular-season success into some postseason magic after losing in the sectional in each of the last two years.
Alyssa Yochum, one of 10 seniors on the squad, talked about the better energy and chemistry the Eagles have shown this season. They capped an impressive stretch at the Mascoutah Tournament on Saturday by knocking off Class 3A rival Mascoutah 25-17, 25-11 in the championship match.
Sign Up and Save
Get six months of free digital access to Belleville News-Democrat
“It’s kind of like the last of everything, so you want to put everything you can on the court, 100 percent effort and 100 percent energy,” Yochum said when asked about the realization of this being the seniors’ final high school season. “We have more chemistry this year, it’s definitely a different feel because it is out last everything.
“There’s always a lot of energy on the court. If there’s a really awesome play or a really awesome rally, we get real energetic together.”
Another senior standout Jordan Hausmann, talked about the special bond the seniors possess.
“With 10 seniors and 10 of us who have been playing together for so long, we knew it was going to be special,” Hausmann said. “We just wanted it and we knew that with working hard it would be a great year. (The Mascoutah win) meant a whole lot to us. The practice before the tournament we knew we’d see Mascoutah there.”
The Eagles own solid wins over Althoff and Gibault, but their signature victory came Saturday on the home floor of the Mascoutah Indians. Mascoutah returns plenty of talent from its 3A state tournament qualifier last season and the Eagles delivered a methodical 25-17, 25-11 dismantling of the Indians.
Columbia’s 2015 season ended with a sectional loss to Mascoutah.
“It’s definitely crazy because ending the season on a loss is heartbreaking,” Yochum said. “I feel like we wanted it to so bad because we knew what that felt like. It just felt really nice.”
Columbia coach Kelly Landgraf also felt the tourney win over Mascoutah was a big step for her squad.
“They’re very good,” Landgraf said. “They’re obviously a lot bigger than us and a lot stronger, but I think we were a little quicker. Our passing was great and we were able to run a quick offense throw them off a bit.
“They went to state and after a team goes to state, it makes other teams a little bit hungrier to beat them. That was the ultimate goal, we were hoping that we would see them. This is our only opportunity to see them before we see them in playoffs.”
It’s been an interesting season for the Eagles, who had arguably as much returning experience as any team in the area.
Senior outside hitter Colene Hamilton and her unique set of twisting, turning and explosive kills has been as good as advertised. Hamilton is among the regional kills leaders with a team-leading 117 (8.7 per game), forcing teams to commit defensive attention her way.
But when they do, that leaves an opening for strong middle hitters Yochum (71 kills, 34 blocks) and Hausmann (69 kills, team-leading 34 blocks). Setter Liz Fleming (252 assists, 8.7 per game, 18 service aces) has a variety of weapons to choose from.
“At the Mascoutah Tournament, especially in the championship, my middles really established themselves the whole game and set the tone real early,” Landgraf said. “Colene has been such a focus the past three years that everyone goes into playing us hoping if they shut her down, they’ve got a great chance. I’ve got other really strong hitters, too.”
Landgraf said another factor in the Eagles’ success was moving Kelly Metter (27 kills, team-leading 131 digs) from libero to outside hitter. That move was made in the second match of the year against Althoff and has added more firepower to the equation.
“She’s getting a lot more comfortable with it,” Landgraf said of Metter, who also played outside hitter as a freshman on the varsity. “She’s so athletic, she can adjust to any position I think.”
Metter is also important as one of several team leaders.
“She’s got that good personality,” Yochum said. “She kind of keeps us alive and happy.”
It’s still early, but Landgraf feels these Eagles have the potential to make a similar playoff run to Columbia’s 2012 super-sectional qualifier that knocked off favored Mater Dei in the sectional.
“Yes, very much so,” she said. “It’s the focus, they’re very driven to win. This team has some more weapons than that team had offensively. Not better, just more. They’re really fun to coach when we’re scrimmaging each other, they’re super-competitive against each other.
“You would think they’re playing in a state title game the way they fight each other for a point. I think that they’re starting to understand that volleyball is a team sport.”
Last week was a busy week for tournaments, including Columbia’s victory over Mascoutah in the championship of the Mascoutah Tournament.
Belleville West won the Jacksonville Tournament, with senior Nikki Gaskill earning all-tournament honors and junior Kaylee Hanger also enjoying a big weekend.
O’Fallon won the Lincoln Railsplitters Tournament, going 5-0 led by all-tournament performer Mackenzie Koester.
Edwardsville went 3-2 at the Effingham Crossroads Classic, defeating McCracken County (Ky.) in the Gold Flight seventh-place match 25-18, 26-28, 25-14. Lexington (Ky.) Henry Clay defeated Wheaton St. Francis 25-16, 25-20 to win the championship.
Also at the Crossorads Classic, Althoff (3-2 in tourney) got first place in the Silver Flight by defeating Bloomington 25-21, 25-20. Central lost to Normal University High 25-19, 25-12 in the finals of the Bronze flight.
Freeburg has won seven of its last eight matches to push its record to 12-3, with the lone defeat coming in scrappy 25-22, 25-21 fashion Saturday to host Mascoutah at the Indians’ tournament.
The Midgets’ balanced offense has been led by Maddie Hurd (130 kills), Miranda Schulte (122 kills) and Hannah Bouas (75 kills) with setter Abby Quirin (327 assists, nine per game) running the attack.
Red Bud’s Morgan Cowell is among the St. Louis area kill leaders at 5.29 per game with Edwardsville junior Rachel Pranger (5 per game) and Columbia’s Hamilton not far behind. Pranger’s 152 kills ranks third among all St. Louis area players.
O’Fallon setter Alison Fournie ranks third in the St. Louis region by averaging 11.13 assists per game, with Mascoutah’s Kamrynn Voypick seventh at 10.21 per game. Edwardsville setter Rachel Verdun (9.17 assists per game), Freeburg’s Quirin (8.97 assists per game) and Columbia’s Fleming (8.72 per game) are also among the leaders.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsvile junior libero Katie Shashack (Edwardsville) leads the Cougars with 154 digs. Shashack was recently named Ohio Valley Conference Defensive Player of the Week after collecting a career-high 29 digs in a five-set match against Green Bay and 21 more in a three-set win over Evansville.
Senior defensive specialist Tessa Amsden (Columbia) has 32 digs for the Cougars (5-3), who won the Columbia (N.Y.) Classic tournament last weekend.
St. Louis University senior setter Ashley Gagen (Althoff) is second on the team in assists with 167, averaging 5.57 per set. Gagen also has 32 digs for the Billikens (3-8).