By MICHAEL BURWELL
Liberty-Benton’s state-ranked volleyball team got off to a slow start in the first two sets against Elmwood on Tuesday.
But once the Eagles found their rhythm, they were hard to stop.
L-B, the No. 2 seed in the Kalida district, rallied from early deficits to knock off No. 9-seed Elmwood 25-18, 25-19, 25-16 in a Division III district volleyball tournament opener at Liberty-Benton.
“Our serve receive was not where it needed to be tonight at all, but I was proud of my team for fighting back,” L-B coach Julie Todd said. “I give credit to Elmwood, too. Their blocking was pretty good, better than what we expected, so we did adjust to that. But I’m hoping Saturday, we need to come out stronger and ready to play.”
L-B, the No. 8-ranked team in the final Division III state coaches poll, improved to 22-1 and pulled to within one win of tying a school record for wins in a season (23-2 in 2002). The Eagles will host No. 10-seed Seneca East (4-17) at 7 p.m. Saturday.
Elmwood finished its season 5-16.
The Royals jumped out to an 8-2 lead in the first set and led 10-5 in the second. Kayla Minich had three of her team-high eight kills in Elmwood’s first seven points of the opening set and had a pair of kills in the Royals’ run to start the second.
The Eagles, however, used a 21-4 run in the first set and a 15-5 run in the second to take control.
L-B sophomore Alissa Rhodes found Caitlin Elseser (6-foot-3 sophomore), Hannah Warrington (5-5 sophomore) and Hannah Otley (5-7 senior) for three straight kills from the middle, left and right side of the net to give the Eagles a 15-12 lead in the second set. Elseser, who recorded a match-high 16 kills, added another kill to stretch L-B’s lead to four.
The Eagles scored their last four points of the set on kills as well. Warrington smacked two of her 14 kills off passes from Rhodes, while Otley and Schy Shepherd (five kills) added one each off assists from Rhodes.
“I think that’s been our strength all year,” Todd said of having a balanced offense. “When we scout other teams or even just look on MaxPreps at the stats, it seems like there’s always one or two girls that dominate in the kill region. Our team, it’s very, very evenly split so I think that’s a strength of ours.
“Our setter, Alissa Rhodes, give her so much credit because she runs all over the court, gets her hands on everything and she knows how to mix it up and keep the other team guessing.”
Elmwood used a 6-1 run, including a Minich kill off Maddie Schroeder’s pass, to pull within 24-18 in the first set. But Elseser’s block sealed the set for L-B.
The Royals had 11 hitting errors during L-B’s run.
“It was a really, really good start (to the set) and that’s something we’ve been working on all year is getting the first point,” Elmwood coach Penny Rayle said. “But Liberty-Benton, they’re a good team and that’s what they do. They came out of it, they were like OK, we’ve got to wake up. They came out, didn’t make a lot of mistakes. We still are making silly mistakes, we’re young.”
L-B raced out to an 8-1 lead in the third set. Warrington, Elseser and Otley each recorded two kills.
Warrington added back-to-back kills to give the Eagles a 17-8 advantage, and Elseser added two more as L-B went up 19-9. Shepherd and Warrington’s kills of Rhodes’ passes closed out the match.
“They’re a really quick team, they’re really strong,” Rayle said. “If they find one open hole or one late block, that’s where they’re hitting the ball. Every time.”
Warrington was 24 of 27 spiking and added seven digs, while Elseser was 22 of 26 spiking and had two blocks. Mackenzie Murphy collected a team-high nine digs and Katie Veenstra was 17 of 17 serving.
Schroeder dished out 21 assists for Elmwood. Jill Hannah had 16 digs and Taiah Douglas had five kills and six blocks.
The Kalida district features three of the top eight teams in the final Division III coaches poll. Top-ranked Coldwater and No. 7 Ottawa-Glandorf are also in the district.
A potential matchup with O-G looms in the district semifinals for L-B, and although the Eagles are preparing for the Titans, Todd said they need to make sure to take care of business against Seneca East.
“We are trying to prepare for what our coaches have scouted against O-G in particular, but we say we have to keep looking at the team that we’re playing each night and I think with what we’re doing in practice should help us with whoever we play,” Todd said. “But definitely, we need to clean it up before our next game.”
KILLS: Kayla Minich 8, Lizzy Hall 6, Taiah Douglas 5, Peighton Troike 4. ASSISTS: Maddie Schroeder 21. DIGS: Jill Hannah 16, Hall 11. BLOCKS: Douglas 6.
SERVING: Katie Veenstra 17-17, Chloe Miller 15-15. KILLS: Caitlin Elseser 16, Hannah Warrington 14, Schy Shepherd 5. SPIKING: Warrington 24-27, Elseser 22-26, Shepherd 8-8. DIGS: Mackenzie Murphy 9, Warrington 7, Miller & Veenstra 6. BLOCKS: Elseser 2.
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