By Dan Gilles
Rocky River’s volleyball team starts five juniors and a freshman.
That tidbit alone seems unique. However, what makes it even more is that the Pirates are a team without any seniors on it.
Despite that, Rocky River was 6-3 (3-2 in the West Shore Conference) following what coach Kelly Bennett called the team’s best game of the season – a five-game loss to undefeated Elyria Catholic Sept. 11 at the EC Coliseum.
Rocky River came very close to winning the match in three games, but wound up on the losing end of a 23-25, 26-24, 22-25, 25-12, 15-4 match to the 7-0 (5-0) Panthers.
“This was the best we’ve played all season,” Bennett said. “I thought our girls played phenomenal the first three games. Looking back, we had a chance to win game two, and after winning game three, we could have already been on the bus. But EC hung in there and made plays and got sideouts when they needed to. I’m very, very proud of our kids.”
For Rocky River in the match, junior outside hitter Mary Kate Krajcer had 15 kills and eight digs, junior libero Olivia Lloyd-George had 21 digs and junior setter Mindy Kurz had 30 assists to lead its efforts.
“Mary Kate Krajcer is kind of our go-to kid,” Bennett said. “She gets a lot of swings every night and she does a lot of things defensively, serving, serve receive. She led us with 15 kills (Tuesday) and had a solid night.
“Our serve receive was remarkable. It was just close to perfect in the first three games, which is why we were so effective. That comes from our libero, Olivia George. And I thought our blocking did a very nice job. They’ve got a lot of big hitters (at EC), and we were able to slow a lot of their stuff down, get some really good touches, and our defense was extremely scrappy.”
Rocky River gave EC all it could handle in two highly competitive games that the Pirates came very close to sweeping. They held serve with a 24-23 lead in the second game before a Kit O’Shaughnessy kill forced a game-tying sideout, which led to three unanswered EC points to earn the split.
With her team looking listless, it was O’Shaughnessy – the Panthers’ captain – who came up big to end the third game. On a 6-1 run that cut Rocky River’s lead from 23-16 to 24-22, O’Shaughnessy had four kills, and junior Rachel Duffield had two aces.
But, needing two points to tie things up at 24, libero Becca Pronesti – who led EC with 19 service points, two aces and 17 digs – had a serve clip the top of the net and bounce back to EC’s side to give Rocky River the game-winning point.
EC head coach Jen Lee said her team’s performance to end the third game was a big key to her team’s turnaround.
“I had to make key substitutions there and count on some younger ones, and they came up to bat when they needed to,” she said. “It definitely turned the game around. I’ve got to commend Rocky River. They are a very scrappy team. They don’t have a superstar, but they’ve got great teamwork and they fought super hard.
“I know my girls came in here and thought it was going to be a rollover, and that’s a lesson learned from them, too. Like I said, (Rocky River) is a really, really fine team. I was really impressed with Rocky River.”
The Panthers, using the same lineup they used to end the third game, set the tone in the fourth game by jumping out to an 11-4 lead.
The closest Rocky River came was 16-10. From that point, EC hit the gas again and set up an all-or-nothing fifth game with a 9-2 run. O’Shaughnessy killed the final three points behind the serving of Marie Vasitas to close out the Pirates.
“We didn’t come into this match with right mentality,” said O’Shaughnessy, who led the team with 20 kills and added 17 assists, 10 digs and six points with an ace. “We struggled a bit in the first two games, and in those last two games, we really wanted to keep our offense back and keep the momentum on our side. We really had more energy the last two games and played our game.
“We kind of took it easy a little bit. I think Rocky River played well and we definitely had to play our best to win the match.”
Leading 8-4, the Panthers closed out the victory with seven unanswered points with Vasitas at the line. She finished with 14 points, an ace, 11 digs and a team-best 20 assists.
“I think we just kind of ran out of a little gas physically (and) emotionally,” Bennett said. “We knew they were undefeated in the conference and we wanted to give them their first loss. But my kids fought really hard, and we went down fighting.
“We’re getting close to getting that big win. I just told the girls to keep their heads up. They came in here and they know how well they can play now. They just need to finish.”
Bennett looks at a team without any seniors and doesn’t see it as a negative.
“It’s been nice, actually,” she said. “It’s been nice not having any seniors. This is the first time that’s happened (while I’ve been head coach), but these girls have played together for the last three years coming up together.
“A lot of them have played J.O. (Junior Olympic) volleyball together, and they’ve all kind of stepped up into their own roles and we’re getting contributions out of a lot of different people.”
Other starters include juniors Jessica Laskowski (outside hitter) and Kara Coffman (middle hitter), and freshman Justine Coffman (middle hitter). Sophomore Mallory Krajcer (outside hitter) is also a key contributor of the bench.
Bennett talked about the challenges of the WSC.
“Just looking at the conference, (Elyria Catholic) is undefeated and Avon has a loss and we have a couple of losses,” she said. “We can still keep it interesting. After Lakewood at home (last Thursday), we had Magnificat home on Monday. So, that will be fun.”