BY JOSH SIGLER
---- — PERU — Hannah Ballard powered down 16 kills in a dominating effort at the net, and Northwestern served up 15 aces to help take down county-rival Western 25-12, 25-9, 25-11 Tuesday in the opening round of Class 3A volleyball sectional play at Tig-Arena.
The Purple Tigers (15-12) advance to the sectional semifinals for the first time since 2002, where they will face Twin Lakes, a squad they split with during the regular season.
“This is great. I don’t know the record but it’s been several years since we’ve gotten that first-game win. So, we’re excited about it,” Northwestern coach Trina Yager said. “I know we’re going to have a tough match with Twin Lakes come Saturday morning. We’re two very evenly competitive teams so it’ll be a tough fight. But, the girls have it in them.”
Northwestern began the match on a quick 5-0 spurt before Western came back to pull within one on four different occasions in the opening set. A 6-0 run from the Tigers gave them a 17-10 lead, and they never looked back, finishing the opening set on a 14-2 run before starting the second set on a 12-3 roll.
Struggles to effectively receive serve left Western unable to establish offensive rhythm throughout the contest.
“It’s been an issue for us most of the year,” Western coach Nicole Rodman said. “We get on it in practice, but it doesn’t seem to translate into games. It’s tough to win being inconsistent. Being able to get consistent passes, set up and pound it down — we just weren’t able to do that.”
Northwestern’s stout service performance didn’t aid Western’s cause either. Emily Harshman led the way for the Tigers with 14 points and eight aces. Kelsey Richards added a team-high 16 points to go with three aces and Kristin Ireland added 12 points.
“We’ve been working on our serves, calling them in places a little more,” Yager said. “The girls have been doing a good job with that, because a couple of times where we struggled in stretches [this season] it’s be due in part to our serving. I was very pleased with the way they served [Tuesday] night.”
The Tigers matched their 12-3 run from the second set out of the gates in the the third. Ballard’s 16th kill of the night put Northwestern at match point before a Western attack error ended it.
Having defeated Western convincingly in the first two times the two teams faced, Yager was pleased with the way her squad avoided complacency in a third matchup where the season hung in the balance.
“The girls knew what to expect from them because we’ve seen them twice before,” she said. “I told them to be ready for anything because it’s sectional time and teams step it up. We knew we were going to have to come out here, play tough and play to win, and the girls did a good job of that.”
Alexis Brown added five kills to the victory effort, while Whitney Zeck added four kills. Sydney Zeck dished out 27 assists. Harshman added 12 digs, while Richards finished with 10 and Ballard added seven.
Bretta Tate led Western with five kills. Freshman Emily Jones finished with 11 assists for the Panthers.
The Panthers finish the season 6-22, and with no seniors, likely will return everyone to next year’s squad.
“We’ll pick it back up in January and make sure we’re conditioning the way we should be and getting around all the hurdles we faced this year,” Rodman said. “Being senior-less is a huge [positive] looking toward the future, so we’re going to build from there.”