By Jeremy Balan
The St. Francis girls volleyball team’s dominant blocking performance not only gave the Lancers the edge in the first game of their road match against St. Ignatius — it changed the way the Wildcats played the rest of the way.
The defending Division II state champions recorded six point-scoring blocks in the opening game and dictated play throughout a 25-22, 25-16, 25-23 West Catholic Athletic League win on Wednesday at St. Ignatius Prep.
After the first game, St. Ignatius’ group of talented hitters played considerably more cautiously, opting to get the ball over the St. Francis block instead of through it.
“We tried to get as good a block up as we could against their very physical and talented hitters,” said St. Francis head coach Leahi Hall-Leon. “They did a great job of adjusting throughout the match and we tried the best we could to keep up with how high of a level they hit at and the strength they can put on balls.”
The Lancers (12-1, 3-0) controlled the first two games, but the Wildcats (11-3, 2-2) appeared to seize momentum in the third.
St. Ignatius held leads of 4-0, 7-3 and 17-12 in the third game, but after Hall-Leon called her second timeout of the game at 17-12, the Lancers responded with an 11-3 run to force match point.
“[St. Ignatius] did a great job of coming back in that third [game] and that’s a sign of a really good team,” Hall-Leon said. “It could have gone either way, but the girls worked their tails off to keep momentum on our side and our energy level the same.”
The Wildcats would extend the third game to 25-23 on a block from senior Leah Wesolek and a kill from senior Maria Kemiji-McDonald, but St. Francis sophomore outside hitter Christine Alftin connected with her match-high 13th kill on the next point to seal the match.
Kemiji-McDonald and fellow senior Claire Healy each had a team-high 8 kills, and middle blocker Michellie McDonald-O’Brien added five kills and five blocks, but the Wildcats struggled at times passing and getting the ball to their potent hitters.
“We were never able to put our strongest [components] together at the same time,” said St. Ignatius head coach Michelle Rybka. “There where moments when our system was working, but it was never at full strength.”
Despite the loss, Rybka and the Wildcats feel they are capable of competing with the WCAL’s best programs, including St. Francis, which hasn’t lost a league match since 2009.
“We’re right there with them,” Rybka said. “We had a big win against Mitty last week and by no means did any game [tonight] get slipped out from under us. We’re absolutely in the same league as that caliber of a team and I expect to have a good match with them if we see them again.”