Clutch Trojans rally back in regional opener
The Trojans never seemed worried.
That’s not to say their fans weren’t.
The home crowd collectively breathed one big sigh of relief Monday following Fairfield’s tight five-set victory over Knoxville in the first round of regional volleyball at FHS. The Trojans played from behind and they played while holding the lead, but at the end of the long, twisting road they claimed a 18-25, 25-16, 25-14, 24-26, 15-9 victory in Fairfield.
With the clutch victory, Fairfield (26-7) advances to the regional semifinals, where they will once again face Southeast Conference rival Mount Pleasant. The winner of Thursday’s matchup advances to the regional final against the winner of Clear Creek-Amana and Cedar Rapids Xavier, scheduled Oct. 30 in Washington.
“It’s just the way this group is made up. They’re going to bend, but most of the time they’re not going to break,” said Fairfield head coach Nancy Diers. “It gets us to where we want to be in the next round, so take a deep breath and say ‘phew.’”
Saying “phew” is nothing new for Diers. The Trojans have made a habit of winning close games all season — winning by an average of three points per game — but again showed up with ice in their veins Monday. Fairfield averaged 21.4 points per game and gave up 18 in the five-setter.
Even when the momentum seemed to steer to the Panthers in the fifth game, Fairfield looked confident across the net. After letting the fourth game slip away and not capitalizing on two straight match points in the set, the Trojans found themselves down in a two-point hole, 5-3, to start the final game.
“I don’t think this team is too rattled being down two or three points knowing the serving consistency that we have, and our chances for our defensive and offensive punch to go, that we can get a few points back in a hurry,” the long-time coach said.
Down 8-7 and facing elimination, Cheyanne Laux’s consistent serve showed up, and the junior carried the Trojans all the way to a 14-8 lead and match point. She kept the Knoxville offense off-balance with her serve over the stretch and had one ace sprinkled in.
“That’s a credit to her for her serving. They called a couple timeouts during that and it still didn’t rattle her,” said Diers.
Laux got plenty of help from the front line during the run, as Sidney Baumann came through with three consecutive kills from the left side and the left-handed Erin Thompson scored three straight from the right side.
“We had a nice pin-to-pin tandem going between those two seniors, which is nice to see. It took the pressure off our middles a little bit and made [Knoxville] work that much harder,” Diers added.
Knoxville’s Cheyenne Jones put down a kill to cut the lead to 14-9 and prolong the inevitable, but the Trojans weren’t about to drop another match point as they took the fifth set 15-9.
Much like the momentum-swinging final game, Knoxville kept the Trojans on their toes throughout the playoff match. The first set began with a 5-1 lead for Fairfield, but Knoxville would rally late to take a 18-17 advantage. The Panthers scored another three points, Sydney Howard cut into the sudden deficit with a kill, then the visitors closed out the game on another four-point roll.
“We let up and we always do that, especially when we have someone as good as [Knoxville],” said Howard, a senior. “I thought we handled it pretty well.”
According to Diers, the first set was a good wakeup call for the Trojans, who distributed the ball to the hot hitters with efficiency in games two and three. The host team again jumped out quickly in the second set, putting together a few service runs for a 17-10 lead before cruising to a nine-point victory. Another big early lead for Fairfield in game three turned into a 12-5 advantage. Knoxville cut the lead to 16-11, but that’s as close as the Panthers would come. Fairfield received another handful of kills from Thompson, Hanna Greiner and even setter Sydney Burnett en route to the double-digit win.
“We just kind of grabbed the upper-hand and kept them on their heels,” Diers said of sets two and three. “We got an opportunity to run some plays ... and when the kids are doing that they’re in the game more focused and ready to go.”
Marissa Lenger led the Panthers to the comeback in the fourth game. Faced with a 24-22 deficit and two straight match points, the sophomore kept Fairfield off pace for the last few points and capped the comeback with a set-clinching ace.
“We’ve been in those situations before and just weren’t able to get out of that,” Diers said.
The Trojans did, however, get out of the jam in the fifth set. Howard said they won as a team.
“Our team gets along very well. We play together, we have fun together. We’re like a volleyball family, and so we’re in it to win it,” said Howard.
Howard and Thompson proved to be the hot hitters with 15 and 14 kills, respectively. Baumann totaled nine kills, Greiner had eight with three blocks, and Marisa Repp finished with seven spikes and three blocks. Thompson also added three block assists, while McKenna Ledger tallied six kills.
In the back row, Laux was again a defensive force with 30 digs on the night. Howard dug up 19 balls and Baumann chipped in 16.
Alexis Ring and Burnett also turned in solid nights from the setter position with 26 and 24 assists, respectively.
The Trojans continued their undefeated season on their home court and will have one more chance to pick up a home win. The Trojans have won all 11 matches they’ve played in Fairfield this season.
Howard isn’t shy about wanting to beat the Panthers after sweeping them twice in the regular season.
“Mount Pleasant is going down,” Howard exclaimed. “They think the third time is the lucky charm, but nope, we’ve got it in the bucket I hope.”
Fairfield hosts Mount Pleasant (16-15) at 7 p.m. Thursday.
Fairfield vs. Knoxville
FAIRFIELD — 18, 25, 25, 24, 15
KNOXVILLE — 25, 16, 14, 26, 9
DIGS — (FF) Laux 30, Howard 19, Baumann 16, Ring 9, Burnett 8, Thompson 6, Ledger 3, Greiner 2, Repp 1
SERVING — (FF) Howard 18-19 (2), Ring 19-19 (1), Laux 19-19 (1), Baumann 18-19, Burnett 16-16, Thompson 11-13
ATTACKS — (FF) Howard 34-36 (15), Thompson 27-31 (14), Baumann 38-49 (9), Greiner 17-18 (8), Repp 19-24 (7), Ledger 16-23 (6), Burnett 2-5 (1), Ring 3-6, Laux 1-2
ASSISTS — (FF) Ring 26, Burnett 24, Thompson 1, Howard 1, Ledger 1, Laux 1
BLOCKS (solo-asst-tot) — Repp 1-2-3, Greiner 1-2-3, Thompson 0-3-3, Howard 1-0-1, Ledger 0-1-1
SERVE RECEIVE — Baumann 17-23, Laux 15-20, Howard 13-16