Playing just its second match of the season, the United Township volleyball squad overcame a bumpy first set Tuesday night to push Rock Island hard and threaten to force a decisive third set.
But with the Rocks down by two late in the second set of the teams' Western Big Six opener, they got the spark they needed from senior middle hitter Raghen Walker. She delivered two kills and two blocks to fuel a closing 6-0 run as Rock Island scored a 25-18, 25-21 sweep at the Panther Den.
UT (0-2), which had scored the opening two points of the second set and stayed close throughout, battled its way to a 21-19 lead and appeared to have the momentum very much on its side before Rocky took a timeout. Walker then delivered a powerful one-handed smash to light a fire and turn the tide in the Rocks' favor.
"We definitely had to turn it around and stop their momentum," said Walker, whose match-best seven kills helped boost Rock Island to a 5-2 start to the young season. "We were playing a little timid at that point, making errors. We took a timeout and talked about staying aggressive and putting pressure back on them."
In addition to Walker's efforts, the Rocks got a combined 14 assists from setters Sophia Sigler and Bella Allison, with Sigler notching a match-high eight helpers. Cassidy DeMeyer dished out three aces and Alivia Wright had 10 digs, with Ella Engholm turning in a solid match with six digs, two aces and a pair of kills.
"We've got a lot of young players, so we're still trying to find what works best for us," said Rock Island coach Jacqueline Twing. "It was kind of hard (Tuesday) with a slower-paced game. I had to remind the girls to run our fast-paced offense."
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Coming off a three-win showing this past weekend at the Macomb Invitational, Walker felt that helped forge an early bond between Rocky's five seniors and the underclass group.
"We played really well this weekend, going 3-2 against some difficult teams," she said. "That helped build the team chemistry for (Tuesday). We're young, but really scrappy. We feel like we've got a lot to prove."
In the first set, unforced errors hampered the Panthers as Engholm opened the match with four straight service points, helping spark the Rocks to a 7-1 start. That lead gradually grew to 18-11 before UT made a late mini-run to get within four. The hosts got no closer, but that set the stage for a much more competitive second set.
A balanced attack helped the Panthers, with Kalista Merrill, Allison Mirimanian and Peyton Pustelnik (six assist) each notching four kills. Jade Hunter added three kills and three blocks. Kyra Schumaker had a match-best 13 digs.
"We didn't let them go; we kept up with them in the second game," said UT coach Jillian VanOpdorp. "We struggled to get going in the first set, but I thought we did well after that. It's just a matter of getting our energy and momentum early, and not later, when we don't have as much time to play catch-up."