Showing the urgency and resolve of a true champion Thursday, the Hillsdale Academy Colts dug themselves out of what appeared to be a Titanic-sized hole early on to sweep four games and take two matches from the No. 3 team in the state and win the SCAA East crown outright.
The No. 5 Colts (31-11-1 overall, 14-0 SCAA East) beat North Adams-Jerome (33-5, 12-2) 26-24, 26-24 and 25-19, 27-25 as an impressive senior class put a defining mark on their legacy on Senior Night, in front an electrifying fan base.
Senior Grace Leutheuser had eight kills and three aces in the first match and put home the final point of the evening nearly an hour later, to set off a wild celebration thanks to the culmination of hard work.
“Oh my gosh, I am so glad, because we played together for a long time, our senior class is a pretty big one, and we love each other so much. We’ve had a challenging season, kind of up and down, mostly people being tired and sick, but we finished it out really strong,” she said.
Finishing strong was the theme of the night it seemed, particularly in the first set.
The Rams jumped out to a 16-9 lead thanks to strong play from Miranda Hammons and plenty of help from their signature defense. Coupled with some mental mistakes and flat feet on defense from the Colts the Rams seemed to have things wrapped up at 24-16.
But that’s when Academy head coach Katherine Jones called a timeout and the whole complexity of the evening changed in five minutes or less.
“There was a game against Colon at the beginning of our season where we were down 10 and came back so I told them during a timeout, ‘Look, we’re down by eight, we’ve been down further and won so let’s do it again.’”
All of a sudden a fierce look of urgency inhabited the Colts and they did not make a mistake as the Rams watched their lead get whittled away.
With several Leutheuser kills and a plenty of hustle and smarts from the likes of girls like Grae Barber, a comeback was staged. After tying it at 24, N A-J misplayed a serve-receive and Leutheuser finished out the set with a strong serve.
“The first game when we came from behind, that was a mental victory for us and I was so proud,” Leutheuser said. “Volleyball is a lot like that, it’s more mental than any sport that I know, and you just have to trust in yourself that you’re going to take care of the ball every time, and we all did that, the entire team did.”
The Rams remained resilient and led every set the rest of the night, but head coach Darren Kittle was as mystified as anyone when the night ended with his team losers of four straight.
“I think we switched teams for a second,” he said half-jokingly, in regards to the first set. “Usually we bear down, grit our teeth and take that game, and we didn’t do it. That was a real big key to this game, that loss.”
Coming into the showdown it would have been easy just to focus on Leutheuser’s tenacity at the net, but Thursday it was senior teammate Laura Wonders who came up big time and again. She had nine kills in the first match and six more in the second, and her consistent elevation and confidence on big put-aways was crucial in Jones’ opinion.
“She was a dominant force at the net for sure,” she said. “When it came time…like in her little senior speech before the game it said she was a spark for our team, and tonight she just put it on and it was awesome.”
Barber had 27 digs on the evening and seven kills in the first match, while Heather Lantis had a team-high 45 assists.
While desire played a huge role in the Colts victory, especially after losing twice to the Rams at the Jonesville tournament earlier this month, Jones and Leutheuser both agreed that a never-say-die attitude on defense was the finisher.
“I think the deciding factor for us, even more than desire, was just making it through the season. We improved a lot and got mentally stronger and I think that was the deciding factor.” Leutheuser said. “Everything starts with passing and that just helped a lot that we played good defense.”
For the Rams there were several mind-boggling diving saves from Megan Brown and the usual solid play from Kristen Trudell.
Trudell had 39 assists and five kills on the night, while Miranda Hammons had 20 kills and 15 digs. Shannen Kittle had 21 digs and Brown had eight kills.
Darren Kittle didn’t concede that the better team won, but did say the team who made the least amount of mistakes was now conference champs.
“They were just spraying the ball around and we have weaknesses too and they definitely exploited our weaknesses. They played Rams volleyball a little bit — they did what we usually do,” he said. “We’ll bounce back. We didn’t play good tonight and we know it and now we have districts to look forward to. We’ve got a good team we just didn’t show it tonight.”
Jones said she can’t wait to see this team in districts and beyond if they play like this and she couldn’t contain herself from using the word “awesome” in as many sentences as possible.
“It was awesome, it was awesome. I mean I knew they could play like that all season and they finally did, and it was so nice to see that come together,” she said. “That’s a good team, North Adams played awesome and those were all good games that could’ve gone either way.”