By Jeremy Balan
It isn’t hard to see the difference in the St. Ignatius girls volleyball team this season.
With their top three hitters from last season lost to graduation and only one starter returning, the 2012 Wildcats lack experience.
But they grew up a little in the third game of their 25-18, 25-21, 26-24 non-league win on the road against Mercy on Thursday.
After controlling play for most of the first two games, the Wildcats (1-1) rallied back from four separate Mercy leads in the third game to complete the sweep. The largest was a 19-13 deficit and Mercy (1-1) had game point at 24-23, before St. Ignatius scored three straight points to end the match.
Facing game point, sophomore Kelti Hori put down a back-row kill to tie the game at 24-24, then junior middle blocker Celeste Barker connected with a kill and sealed the clinching game with her fifth block of the match.
“We have been having trouble closing out matches this season,” said first-year St. Ignatius head coach Adriana LeBaron, who clinched her first non-tournament varsity win on Thursday. “We haven’t had many games, but they really just finished it and sprinted to the end line.”
Barker was the main threat in a dynamic St. Ignatius attack, tallying a team-high six kills, and 11 other Wildcats tallied at least one kill. After recording three kills and three blocks in the first game, Barker was absent for most of the second and third, but made key plays late in each.
“She’s just so athletic and she has hang time,” LeBaron said of Barker. “If a set is off, she’ll just wait and hit it afterward.”
As impressive as the Wildcats’ versatility was, the team has transformed from recent years, shifting from a high-powered attacking team to a defensively-based system.
“We definitely moved from an offensive team to a defensive team,” LeBaron said. “That dynamic has really changed and has to be our bread and butter this season, to just wear down teams with our defense and be smarter hitters.”
Mercy, a solid defensive squad as well, extended unusually-long rallies in the third game, but could not put the Wildcats away.
The Skippers were led offensively by powerful outside hitter Kijana Best, who had a match-high 11 kills and two aces. Fellow outside hitter Emma Seslar also outscored any other St. Ignatius hitters with seven kills.
Mercy has also lost a ton of talent from last season’s team, but became more competitive with every game.
“We had a very good experience and made a lot of adjustments, and you could tell,” said Mercy head coach Locke Chin. “It was a challenge for them too. I think they were surprised how well we played. It’s all about learning this early in the season.”