October 30, 2013 9:56:37 AM
Adam Minichino - [email protected]
The New Hope High School volleyball team showed Saturday night the trick to making history is teamwork and keeping happy thoughts.
Buoyed by strong serving from Leigh Atkins, solid play at the net by Mercedes Mattix and Silvia Sartori, and scrappy defense by Ashley Martian, New Hope rallied in the fifth set to beat Lewisburg 3-2 in the semifinals of the Mississippi High School Activities Association Class II North State tournament. Set scores were 25-23, 17-25, 25-15, 23-25, 15-13.
Sartori, an exchange student from Serbia, had seven of her match-high 37 kills in the fifth set. She had two in the final flurry to help the Lady Trojans (14-4) rally from a 13-10 deficit.
"All night, that is what I was preaching, little things equal big things," New Hope coach Laura Lee Holman said. "In the first and third set, we were pretty solid and we were executing our game plan. In the fifth set, I called timeout and reinforced the idea that we need five points and that it is going to take good passing, good setting, good hitting, and a couple of digs. They just looked at me and said, 'OK' and they went out there and got it."
Anna Goldman gave Lewisburg a 13-10 lead by winning a joust at the net. A joust is when two players go up for the ball at the same time and trap it between their hands above the net. Goldman put the Lady Patriots two points from a comeback as she powered through the New Hope player to put the ball down.
But the Lady Trojans wouldn't be denied on an evening in which they were celebrating the program's first playoff appearance in its second year of existence. New Hope didn't play like a rookie in the pressure situations, relying on the energy from its home crowd to give it confidence it could rally.
The comeback started with a kill by Sartori that Lewisburg sent high into the rafters and came down quickly after it contacted the venting on the ceiling. Atkins took over from there, whistling an ace to make it 13-12. Mattix then cleaned up after another strong serve by Atkins to kill an overpass to tie the match and force Lewisburg to call timeout.
The break in the action only delayed the inevitable. Unlike what happens after many timeouts, Atkins didn't lose her rhythm or focus and delivered another strong serve. Sartori took care of the offensive part of the equation by angling a kill to the right to give New Hope match point.
That's when Martian got involved from the back row, diving into the front row to pick up a kill attempt and keep the point alive. New Hope kept its shape despite the flurry of activity and had Mattix positioned on the right, near the end of the net. She proved to be placed perfectly, as she went up to contest another kill attempt and blocked it down to give the Lady Trojans a playoff victory in their first attempt.
"I just went up," Mattix said. "I hoped no one was going to hit it back. I just went up and I am going to get this block."
Mattix said she didn't angle her hands to turn it into the middle of the coach. She said she saw the ball when she went up for the block, but she didn't see it hit her hands. She thanked God when she landed and saw the Lady Patriots scramble in vain to dig her block.
Fortunately, Martian had better luck on her defensive play. She said she saw Lewisburg attempt a tip and knew she had to move quickly.
"I just tried to hit it as hard as I could and get it over the net because I knew I wasn't going to be able to get the ball to my setters," Martian said. "I just wanted to give my team the best opportunity to score."
At the end, New Hope's best opportunity to score came with Atkins at the service line. Even though the crowd was going crazy and the adrenaline was flowing, Atkins thought of everything that makes her happy -- her boyfriend, Destin Hahn, the beach -- and calmed down. She said the happy thoughts help take the pressure away and allow her not to think about the gravity of the situation, especially the fact New Hope was in a position to make history.
Needless to say, Atkins was happy afterward that she could contribute to a sports first at the school.
"I think we played amazing," Atkins said. "Everybody has improved. We need a little bit of practice in a couple of areas, but it is amazing."
Holman, who scouted Lewisburg's victory against Ridgeland in the previous round, echoed those thoughts. She was proud the Lady Trojans responded in the third set after she challenged them to "attack" Lewisburg. She felt her players kept the Lady Patriots off balance by mixing the pace of their swings. She also felt the hitters played smart and saw the court first and then directed their hits to open spaces.
"For them to step up and play at that kind of level with very little experience, I think it says a lot more about their character and their heart than anything," Holman said. "They came together and showed Lady Trojan volleyball. It is diving, it is hustling, it is giving everything you have got to keep the ball in the air to try to give your team a chance to score."
After a history-making performance, Holman will have to add "keeping happy thoughts" to New Hope's recipe for success.
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.