LIGONIER — Even though they amassed a 6-1 mark before Tuesday, the Ligonier Valley girls’ volleyball team still carried a pressing bugaboo — struggling in the opening games of matches.
The Rams finally got off to an ideal start against previously unbeaten Penns Manor, rolling to an easy win in Game 1 and then using the momentum in Games 2 and 3 to earn a sweep, 25-18, 25-16, 25-19, in a Heritage Conference match.
Penns Manor, last year’s conference and District 6 Class A champ, fell to 6-1 overall and 5-1 in the conference. Ligonier Valley, last year’s conference runner-up, bounced back from its first loss of the year, which came against Class AAA Hollidaysburg on Monday, to improve to 7-1 overall and 6-0 in the conference.
“Every match we always start out off in the first game, and then we don’t pick it up until the second game,” Ligonier Valley outside hitter Madison McLaughlin said. “So this match it was our goal to start out strong in the first game because we knew they were such a good team, and in order to win, we needed to start off strong, and that’s what we did.”
Taylor Rudnik sparked a run for the Rams late in Game 1 when her block of a Penns Manor kill attempt landed in bounds in the Comets’ first row to give Ligonier Valley an 18-15 lead.
The Rams then won six of the next nine points to force game point at 24-18.
On game point, Penns Manor was whistled for a carry violation, its fifth of the game, to lose 25-18.
“We knew from playing Penns Manor in the past that we couldn’t come in lackadaisical,” Ligonier Valley coach Amy McLaughlin said. “We needed to come in full force and attack the first game, and we did that. They stepped up and took the first game and the momentum went our way, and then we just continued to play well from there.”
The Rams pulled away from the Comets midway through Game 2 following back-to-back kills from Rebecca Kromel, the second of which stretched Ligonier Valley’s lead to 14-9.
A kill from Penns Manor’s Sarah DaBella and an ace from Mallory Drahnak on successive points helped the Comets trim Ligonier Valley’s lead to 18-14.
The Rams answered, though, winning six of the next eight points to set up game point at 24-16.
Shelby Shearer sealed the Rams’ Game 2 win on the next point by ripping an ace off the hands of a Penns Manor front-row player and out of bounds.
“We actually serve-received better than we have most of the year, especially considering how hard they were serving,” Penns Manor coach Barb Thornton said. “We just didn’t find a way to score, and if you don’t find a way to score against a team that’s big and athletic, and that’s bringing the ball back at you, then you’re going to struggle.”
Heather Aikens scored two straight service points in Game 3 to give Penns Manor a 17-15 lead.
But the sequence of a Kromel kill, an Amanda Ross kill and a two-volley infraction from Penns Manor put Ligonier Valley ahead 18-17.
The Rams didn’t look back following Penns Manor’s two-volley miscue, and they took six of the next eight points to make it game point at 24-19.
Hannah Yeskey deceived two Penns Manor front-row players to seal the win on the next point. As the Comets were expecting a set and spike from setter Yeskey to one of the Rams’ hitters, Yeskey unexpectedly dropped a soft two-handed kill into the Comets’ front row to end the match.
Libero Rachel Wallace notched the last three service points of the match. Wallace also amassed a team-high 37 digs, including 14 in the last game.
“That’s exactly where I want to be. That’s the spot,” Wallace said of her chance to serve on game point. “You just go back there and think to yourself that you’re going to drop it in, and that’s it. That’s the only thought you have there.”
Amy McLaughlin admitted that playing a bigger and deeper Hollidaysburg team twice in the early stages of the year has done wonders for the Rams’ confidence. Ligonier Valley beat the Tigers, 3-2, on Sept. 4, but got swept by Hollidaysburg Monday.
“I think it’s absolutely helped us step up our game,” Amy McLaughlin said. “But we knew that was an out of conference match, and that tonight was our real focus. Our conference record was tied with Penns Manor and we knew we’d have to step up and perform at our top level tonight.”