ELDRIDGE — Amber Hall saw flashes of greatness from Ilah Perez-Johnson in practice last fall. The challenge for Pleasant Valley’s outside hitter was translating it to the court on game nights.
Perez-Johnson is a year older, a year stronger and a vastly improved volleyball player.
A reserve on a regional final squad last year, Perez-Johnson was an integral piece of Class 5A seventh-ranked PV’s 25-19, 25-22, 23-25, 25-21 win at The Pit over 4A ninth-ranked North Scott on Tuesday night.
The senior matched Emily Wood with a team-high 15 kills, collected 10 digs and served a pair of aces in helping the Spartans run their season mark to 6-0 overall and 2-0 in the Mississippi Athletic Conference.
“I’ve grown so much in confidence, and my team has really helped me grow that confidence,” Perez-Johnson said. “They’ve pushed me to be a better player, and I’m appreciative of that.”
Perez-Johnson immersed herself into volleyball this past offseason. She played club for Iowa Select, did vertical training, lifted weights and was at all the team’s open gyms.
With the graduation of outside hitter Adrea Arthofer, Perez-Johnson knew there was an opportunity for an expanded role.
“I really pushed myself,” said Perez-Johnson, who was fifth on PV's team last season with 66 kills. “I knew I could be a better player.”
And the fruits of that work have shown in the early portion of the season.
“Her focus and ultimate goal of getting and earning that spot is always in her mind,” Hall said. “She is a very driven young woman. The difference between her play last year and this year is her confidence.
“This year, it is this mentality of, ‘Hey, let’s do this, I got this, I believe in you and you believe in me.’ That has been outstanding to see from a senior leader.”
It gives PV setter Kora Ruff another option, particularly with the attention middle Erica Brohm draws from opposing teams.
The Spartans had three players with at least a dozen kills. Kaitlyn Morgan chipped in seven and Hailey Halupnik had six. Ruff finished with 49 assists.
“A lot of teams have one or two hitters you have to worry about blocking, but when teams have to worry about all three hitters in the front row and people can dominate in the back row, that’s super important,” Wood said. “It gives us the diversity that we have.”
There wasn’t much separation most of the night between the two top-10 teams.
PV closed the first set on a 7-0 surge. It took the last five points of the second set.
After North Scott (9-1, 1-1) took the third set, PV broke free late in the fourth to finish it.
“We’ve got to pass a little bit better and get in system so we can run our offense more efficiently,” North Scott coach Taryn VanEarwage said. “We were out of system a lot, and we weren’t putting balls down like we were capable.”
A big difference was the service line. PV had 14 aces to North Scott’s zero. Halupnik led the Spartans' service game, going 23-for-26 with six aces.
“We’ve got to serve more aggressively,” VanEarwage said.
Hall called it a pivotal win for her team. Besides North Scott being considered one of the league front-runners, The Pit is one of the more raucous environments in the MAC.
Her team didn’t flinch.
“I knew this would be a very difficult match,” Hall said. “The environment was awesome and they were bringing it. That wasn’t an easy win.”
Wood traced it back to the team’s mental strength.
“We zoned everything out, focused on ourselves and played our own volleyball,” she said. “We didn’t let the outside variables affect us.”
Kendall McNaull led the Lancers with 11 kills and Ella McLaughlin collected 10. Emma Powell had eight kills and a team-high 17 digs.
“We can definitely learn a lot from this match and get better from it,” VanEarwage said. “You can’t ask for much more at this time of the year.”