Girls Volleyball: St. Ignatius takes opener on the road against University

St. Ignatius' Mary Shepherd (left) and Michellie McDonald-O’Brien (right) rise up to contest an attack from University's Sara Wojcichowski on Thursday at University High School. (Photo by Devin Chen)

By Jeremy Balan

St. Ignatius’ girls volleyball team got everything it could ask for in the first two games on the road against University High School, but showed just how good it can be in the third.

The Wildcats cruised through the third game and sealed a 33-31, 25-22, 25-19 win over the Red Devils on Thursday in a showcase of two of the best volleyball programs not only in San Francisco, but in Northern California.

University freshman middle blocker Jaelah Hutchison rises up to contest an attack from St. Ignatius' Maria Kemiji-McDonald on Thursday at University High School. (Photo by Devin Chen)

The difference was the play of the St. Ignatius seniors, a group that led the Wildcats (1-0) to a Central Coast Section title in 2010.

In each game, a different St. Ignatius senior took control. In the first it was middle blocker Michellie McDonald-O’Brien tallying seven kills, in the second it was outside hitter Maria Kemiji-McDonald scoring six and in the third it was outside hitter Claire Healy adding six more.

Other than two kills from junior Mary Shepherd, every other St. Ignatius kill came from a senior. McDonald-O’Brien led the way with a match-high 12 kills to go along with three blocks, Healy added 11 kills, Kemiji-McDonald finished with eight and Leah Wesolek tallied 10.

“We have seven strong seniors this year and there is no doubt that we are a senior heavy in our lineup,” said first-year coach Michelle Rybka. “Each of them plays to each other’s strengths, so when somebody needs it, there’s a little extra support.”

St. Ignatius may have controlled the match as the games progressed, but early on the Red Devils (0-1) matched the Wildcats point-for-point.

The marathon first game was the highlight of the entire match, featuring 14 ties and five lead changes. University had six game-point opportunities and St. Ignatius had three, until McDonald-O’Brien ended the game with a tip kill over University blockers.

“There’s a lot of emotion that goes into the first game of a big season,” Rybka said. “I was happy to see the progression. The first game was a little tighter than anyone would have liked, but by Game 3 I felt everyone relaxed a little bit.”

Another key to the Wildcats’ victory was limiting University standout senior outside hitter Katherine Evers. Evers finished with six kills and had just one in each of the final two games.

St. Ignatius senior middle blocker Michellie McDonald-O’Brien tips the ball over University blockers Katherine Evers (right) and Sara Wojciechowski (left) on Thursday at University High School. (Photo by Devin Chen)

“She’s a terrific player and a terrific kid, but the most important thing is to have a diverse offense,” said first-year University coach Nicole Schott. “I don’t want her to be our only go-to. I think we have a lot of great options, which makes things very exciting.”

One of those options made quite an introduction. Freshman middle blocker Jaela Hutchison came off the bench to record a team-high seven kills and three blocks for the Red Devils in limited playing time.

“She is so green and raw, but she has so much potential,” Schott said. “She has little things to work on, but I’m really excited to have the next four years with this group of freshmen because they can be really, really good.”

St. Ignatius may have beaten University in the minimum number of games, but both coaches were happy with their respective performances, as well as their futures as potential state championship contenders.

“We’re very excited and we have big goals,” Rybka said. “In the preseason it’s important to take things one step at a time, but we have big dreams.”

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