Fans came together at the Tiger Cage for what turned out to be a four-set volleyball match between rivals Mercer and Washburn on Thursday.
The Tigers came back to beat Washburn 3-1 (23-25, 25-15, 25-20, 27-25) in a Northern Lights Conference match in Mercer.
“Wow. What a game. This win was a huge confidence builder for the girls. I finally saw them applying the things we have been working on in practice. It was a week of working through some tough stuff,” coach Robyn Schoeneman said. “I told them they just needed to play to win instead of playing to not lose. They are starting to develop that competitive instinct which will be instrumental as we grow as a team.”
“This was big. The biggest win probably this year that we had,” Eiley Schoeneman said. “Definitely being the underdog here it was really huge for us.”
Washburn came fired up, stealing the first set in Mercer. Their lead got as high as 11 points in the first set, up 18-7. Washburn’s Annie Hawbaker and Anna Ledin had aces. Allison Wright and Ede Krueger had kills in that span as well.
“Washburn came into our gym and was loud from the beginning of warm-ups. Our girls looked like deer in headlights,” coach Schoeneman said. “I knew that it would be a rough start. We let them get a big lead on us.”
Mercer climbed back into the first set with a 6-0 run. Ryley Saarnio was on the serve during that run. Jenny Klopatek had a kill. The Castle Guards called their first timeout.
Even after the timeout, the Tigers crept closer. Klopatek set up Eiley Schoeneman for a kill. Then, Eiley Schoeneman took advantage of a free ball for a kill.
The Tigers trimmed the deficit to one point in the first set. Klopatek picked up back-to-back points to make it 24-23, Washburn’s lead. The Castle Guards called a timeout. The Tigers were in the midst of another 6-0 run.
“Washburn came out inspired and with a lot of competitive passion from the first serve,” coach Schoeneman said. “We need to learn to do that. We started to get into a flow late in that game, and the momentum carried over into the second set.”
After a long rally, Washburn went over on two to get the final point they needed. They led 1-0.
Mercer owned the second set. Down 3-5 after another Hawbaker ace, the Tigers went on an 11-0 run with Rylinn Rossi on the serve. Everything was working for the Tigers.
Klopatek came up with a defensive gem that led to a point. Eiley Schoeneman had a kill, followed by two straight aces by Rossi. Klopatek found an open spot on Washburn’s court for a point. Eiley Schoeneman tipped it over the net for a score.
“People didn’t think very highly of us this season, and I feel like we’re starting to prove them wrong,” Ava Milashus said.
The Castle Guards called a timeout down 5-11.
The Tigers never let Washburn get back in the game. Anya Brandenburg had an ace later in the set before another Eiley Schoeneman kill. The Tigers won 25-15 to tie the match at 1-1.
In the third set, the Castle Guards forced the Tigers into mistakes early. Washburn had a quick 6-1 lead. Washburn maintained a 9-6 lead when Ledin assisted Amelia Croteau for a kill.
Like they had all game, Klopatek and Eiley Schoeneman came through for the Tigers. Klopatek found an angle for a point. Eiley Schoeneman had back-to-back aces. Mercer led 13-11. Washburn called a timeout.
“I believe keeping the ball in Jenny and Eiley’s hands was instrumental in those two sets,” coach Schoeneman said. “The passes were there and the girls were all flowing. Rylinn Rossi came up with some big blocks.”
The Tiger defense came up big when they needed to the most. Milashus dived on the court to save a ball, leading to the Tigers getting the point. The Tiger Cage was fired up at Mercer.
“Ava Milashus and Tyla Tourtillott were remarkable on defense, and they never gave up,” coach Schoeneman said. “Anya Brandenburg got on a serving run with some big points. Ryley Saarnio and Amber Eith settled in and started playing steady.”
Up just 16-14, Eiley Schoeneman passed it to Saarnio who set up Klopatek for a kill. Rossi had a solo block that put the Tigers up 21-16. Washburn used their second timeout.
“It went good. We (had) a good flow — good movement, communicating,” Milashus said about the defense.
The set wasn’t over yet. The Castle Guards used a little 3-0 run to scare the Tigers. Down 17-24, Washburn cut it to 20-24 with a kill by Wright, assisted by Ledin.
Again, the set came down to a long rally. Klopatek got the point Mercer needed with a bump over the net that found Washburn’s court. Mercer won back-to-back sets, leading 2-1 in the match.
“Jenny is the definition of a catalyst. She can get the team going with her play and her competitive fire. She raises the level of play of her team,” coach Schoeneman said. “She came up with some huge plays tonight. She sees the court so well. She played inspired last night, and it fueled us.”
The fourth set was the most intense set of the night with both fan bases getting into it. Washburn wasn’t ready to go home quite yet. Meanwhile, the Tigers were looking to close the match out.
A Wright-Ledin-Krueger connection got Washburn the first point of the game. Down 1-3, the Castle Guards went on a run with Hawbaker serving. Washburn’s Nevaeh Gordon had a kill to put them up 7-4.
Amber Eith and Klopatek had aces as the Tigers kept it close. However, the Castle Guards did get the lead as high as 17-13, forcing the Tigers to use their first timeout since the first set.
Down 15-18, Eiley Schoeneman had an ace before a Klopatek kill. Another Eiley Schoeneman ace tied the game at 18-18.
“We have two girls (Schoeneman and Klopatek) who have been in high pressure situations. The girls are learning to compete. I have been waiting to see that fire get sparked in them and it finally happened,” coach Schoeneman said. “We make a lot of mistakes. A lot of young player mistakes. If we want to keep growing as a team, we have to continue to play with that same fire in every situation.”
The response by Washburn came courtesy of Gordon. She had two kills, one of them a free ball, to give Washburn a 21-18 lead. Mercer called another timeout.
Service errors hurt the Castle Guards down the stretch. They had three service errors near the end of the fourth set. Eiley Schoeneman assisted Klopatek for a kill. Hermosa Gauthier of Washburn hit the ball out of bounds. The set was tied at 22 apiece.
“To never give up. With that high of a score, you just can’t give up in that game,” Eiley Schoeneman said.
Then, Saarnio had an ace. Washburn called their second timeout. Next, Croteau hit the ball out of bounds. Mercer needed one more point.
“Every match is going to be a battle,” coach Schoeneman said. “They need to have the character they had in that fourth set in order to raise our game to the next level.”
It didn’t come easy for the Tigers. Ledin assisted Krueger for a point, followed by another Washburn kill. One of those three service errors came into play when Makayla Kannegiesser committed one for the Castle Guards.
Still, Washburn rallied for a point when Krueger had a tip and a kill right on the line. It was 25-25.
The Tigers responded with one of their own. Klopatek had the pass, Brandenburg the assist and Eiley Schoeneman the kill.
“Communicating. That was the big thing,” Eiley Schoeneman said about the fourth set. “During practice that’s really what we work on, and I think as we build on through the season and especially tonight, communicating was helping us.”
Mercer had it at set point again. The Castle Guards couldn’t find the line, giving the Tigers the win. Mercer won three straight sets for the victory.
“Each girl is learning their role and improving everyday. I told them at the beginning of the season that we have to all get comfortable in our roles and remember that their role is a part of the bigger picture,” coach Schoeneman said. “I believe the biggest key to last night’s win is they started having fun. No matter what the score was, they just kept playing.”
Up next, the Tigers (8-4, 3-0) play at Butternut on Friday, Sept. 22 starting at 5:45 p.m.
Brett LaBore may be reached at [email protected] or [email protected].