Based on the level of play between Glenelg and visiting River Hill on Thursday night in both team’s season opener, it could’ve been a playoff game with the season on the line.
The Gladiators, who return just two starters from last year’s team that went 14-3, were putting on a show defensively. The Hawks, meanwhile, who had three freshmen see significant playing time, looked like a veteran team with years of experience together.
But something had to give, and in the end it was the Gladiators’ defense and their ability to make a key adjustment on the fly that was the difference in a 27-29, 25-23, 25-22, 28-26 victory.
“I would say that both teams at different points in the match really showed what their A-game could be like,” Glenelg coach Jason Monjes said. “River Hill, they’re young but they’re definitely going to be a talented group in the next couple of years and really showed they can hit the ball. With us, our serve and serve receive didn’t show up in the beginning but we really gutted it out when we had to.”
Both teams were playing in a hot and humid gym that impacted both teams differently. Glenelg senior setter Maddie Southern, one of its key returning players, midway through the third set had to switch positions because she couldn’t keep her hands dry as a result of the heat. She committed numerous double-contact violations throughout the match and was replaced as setter by senior Olivia Haley.
As fate would have it, though, Southern played a key role down the stretch as a right-side hitter. She had a block and three kills, none more crucial than her last that broke a 26-all tie and setup match point. Glenelg celebrated after River Hill hit the ball long on the next point.
Monjes said he has tinkered in practice with putting Haley at setter but calls it a gamble because it takes away an offensive weapon in the front row. But this time it worked.
“Maddie basically just told me she couldn’t find her rhythm so we made the change and kind of gambled with putting Olivia in the front row,” he said. “But Maddie Myers and Alyssa Kelly and even Lydia Stricker were just digging balls when we didn’t have that block, and all of a sudden we were scoring.”
River Hill coach Lynn Paynter said she learned that her team has more “spunk and that we can come back from behind,” but also that they need to push a little harder and have more variety in their hits. Ultimately, she credits Glenelg’s defense as the difference.
“When I thought the balls were down they were able to pull a few off the ground and into play, which didn’t take out of our sails because we kept pushing and kept coming, but they have some defenders who are really hard to beat,” she said.
Glenelg rallied in the opening stanza with five consecutive points while facing set point but both teams struggled to capitalize and put the other away. Senior Devin Hill (seven kills) hammered her fourth kill of the set to tie the score at 27 and the Hawks finished the set off with three straight points to take a one-set lead.
Sophomore middle blocker Gracen Alsheimer carried the Gladiators to the finish line in the second set. Tied at 15, she had a kill and two aces to give them a 20-17 advantage, but this time River Hill answered and tied the score at 22. An ace from Southern and a kill from Myers, however, was enough to tie the match at a set apiece.
The Hawks took the largest lead of the match for both teams in the third set. They led, 16-8, but it slowly slipped away as Glenelg made the switch at setter and raised its game offensively. It eventually tied the score at 19 on a kill by Southern and took the lead for good a few points later on a kill from Kelly.
Like the first three, the fourth set came down to the wire. The Hawks had set point after Shannon McCarthy’s kill made it 24-23 and again at 25-24. But that was their last opportunity. The Gladiators scored the next two points and four of the last five to close it out.
“We know we’re going to see them again because come sectional playoffs they are going to ready for a deep run,” Monjes said. “But I think for us, we know we have options and we know we can gut it out. We didn’t play as great today and we know we can do better.”
Alsheimer, who stands 6-foot-2, made the most of her limited playing time and finished with six kills, four blocks and two aces. Myers, a junior who was homeschooled before coming to Glenelg, had a game-high 14 kills.
River Hill was led offensively by freshman Shannon Hill, who had nine kills.