This is what it’s all about — two schools less than 10 miles apart putting undefeated conference marks and Top 5 rankings on the line with a division title at stake on the final night of the regular season.
When the No. 3 team in Class D, North Adams-Jerome, takes on No. 5 Hillsdale Academy tonight it’s two passionate fan bases going head-to-head, a veteran head coach against a rookie and it’s one of the most staunch defenses in the state battling a powerful front line.
Rams head coach Darren Kittle, who has been calling the shots at N A-J for more than two decades, said the entire North Adams community is excited about the opportunity that Thursday night’s SCAA doubleheader presents.
“It can’t get any better than (this). Our fans are so enthused and excited about going over there, it will be a ruckus. People have been talking about this in North Adams for a month…so we’re going to pack that place,” he said. “ We’ve been stomping teams and killing them and (the Colts) have been in the back of our minds for probably a little while now.”
His Rams defeated the Colts twice at the Jonesville tournament two weekends ago, once in pool play and once in the finals, but Academy first-year coach Katherine Jones is confident her team is more prepared for this showdown after carefully studying game film of the opposition.
“I saw us adjust to things they did from the first game to the last match in the finals. Our first match we came out really slow, it was our first game of the day and it wasn’t that great, we weren’t really awake yet,” she said. “So I didn’t take a lot from that game…but the finals, when we went to three (sets) there’s a lot we learned from that. I think each time we played them we were getting closer and closer each time.”
Jones said she is “excited and also nervous” and the players can’t quit talking about the game, but she’s trying to keep level-headed for the sake of everyone involved.
“They’re just really excited to play and it’s also our Senior Night so our seniors are excited about that, but sad as well that it’s their last conference game. Just as a team we’re excited to play them to see what we can do against them,” she said. “I’m real excited. I mean if we don’t win it, we don’t win it, it’s not going to be the end of our season, so I don’t want it to be the end-all.”
The Rams are 34-3 overall, while the Colts are 29-11-1, but they have found success very different ways.
The Rams rely a lot on the defensive positioning and incredible instincts of girls like Shannen Kittle and Kristen Trudell, while the power of players like Miranda Hammons and Megan Brown give the offense a face; the Academy on the other hand has arguably the conference’s most powerful front-line tandem in Grace Leutheuser and Laura Wonders, while Heather Lantis provides some much-needed consistency all over the floor.
Kittle is able to sum it up best.
“I think it’s a classic offense versus defense. We were able to beat them at the tournament by probably playing better defense than they did,” he said.
Kittle said his girls are extremely smart and they picked up on a lot of the Colts’ tendencies in their first two meetings and he thinks that will pay huge dividends.
“Although a volleyball court is smaller than a basketball court it is hard to cover the entire area and if they try to take away one thing, our girls can usually exploit another area,” he said.
Jones said she will concede that the Rams are the better defensive team and her girls understand that attacking N A-J begins and ends with an effective serve-receive.
“We need to be smart and we can’t just pound the ball at the floor, because they’ll dig it up. We just have to find the open spots,” she said. “We’ve watched a lot of film and we know what they are capable of doing and we just need to be smart with the ball. We obviously probably want to keep it away from (Shannen Kittle) as much as possible or at least move her around.”
The Colts will have to keep it away from her for at least four sets, maybe more, as Thursday will be a bit more unique than many championship-deciding evenings, because it could in fact conclude with the teams sharing a title.
“It’s huge, it’s going to be a big mental game,”Jones said. “If you win the first one you don’t want to relax at all, you want to keep pushing to win the second one; if you lose the first one you want to get out of that funk and just get ready for that second game. It changes how you prepare for it and even how the girls are going to play it.”
Kittle said the two matches are completely separate of each other and he’s learned not to put too much stock into the outcome of the first one.
“We’ve been here before, having to play a couple of doubleheaders with Climax when they were really tough and we’ve had some really meaningful ones with Camden before when everything was on the line,” he said. “You can dominate a team or get dominated in a game and come back and it’s just like it didn’t happen. Somehow it’s just a totally different mindset between matches.”
For all his experience and knowledge though, Kittle admits there’s no magic formula to guarantee victory in these situations.
“I don’t have any magic, you just might say something that gets them fired up for a few seconds, but it’s a long haul. Every team is different but what I’ve learned from this team is they just have to stay loose and goof around a little and don’t hardly talk too much about it,” he said.