Between the first and second sets at the Class 4A Hobart Sectional, Valparaiso's end of the court didn't look like the winning one.
The Vikings' girls volleyball team held off Portage 25-23 in the first set, but the Indians outplayed Valparaiso after a slow start in the opener. Valparaiso coach Katie Lenard brought her team together and issued one main directive: Cut the mistakes.
Valparaiso got the message. The Vikings claimed the second set 25-11 and the third 25-13 in dispatching a resilient Portage squad.
“I thought that we started strong, then we had a little bit of weakness going in at the end of that first (set), but we bounced back from it well,” Lenard said. “We got a little bit lax in the first (set) and kind of had to tighten things up a little bit, play under control, communicate better.”
Senior libero Rachel Vendl led the way with 28 digs, while senior Serena Wagner and sophomore Megan Gatz notched 8 kills apiece. The leadership of Vendl, Wagner and Bella Barounes — whose five-block performance Lenard praised — helped Valparaiso keep the energetic Indians in check. Portage went down big early in the first but mounted a comeback to come within one point of Valparaiso as senior libero Alyssa Melendez dove left and right, galvanizing her team.
Even after Valparaiso (15-20) took the first set, Portage (11-19) made it clear it wasn't going away. Between the first two sets, junior Adriana Hatch danced along to Florida Georgia Line's “Cruise” and Melendez executed a complicated handshake routine with fellow senior Cierra Simpson. The Indians' bright expressions looked like those of a team that saw opportunity.
“(Melendez) always brings people up, and she's a great leader,” Portage coach Allison Bachman said. “(The girls) knew that this game was a do-or-die situation, so I think having that mentality really helped.”
Bachman praised her team's seniors for continuing to believe in themselves and the team despite the turnover of three coaches in four years, while Valparaiso's seniors have played key roles in helping along underclassmen like Gatz. As the Vikings advance to face the host Brickies at 10 a.m. Saturday in the semifinals, their seniors will once again be playing to extend their careers.
They know what it will take.
“It's more going after every ball, not letting a ball drop, going 110 percent every time. Even if that means you run into somebody, at least you're going after it,” Wagner said. “It's good for the underclassmen and the younger girls, because they look up to us. ... Us having good energy during the game and just going out there 110 percent every time makes them want to do that, too.”