By Robb Hemmelgarn
NEW KNOXVILLE -- The last time a matchup between the St. Henry Redskins and the New Knoxville Rangers carried as much clout as their encounter at the Ranch last evening, the majority of both teams' benches were in pre-school.
The Redskins entered the battle as the MAC's lone unbeaten volleyball team in conference play, while the Rangers' only blemish on the season was a five-game loss to the Versailles Tigers.
When all was said and done, the tangle lived up to all of its hype as the Rangers scraped their way to victory by downing the Redskins for the second time in less than a week.
The five-game marathon win for New Knoxville was the first victory over St. Henry by a conference opponent since Coldwater accomplished the feat 38 matches ago in 2001.
"After beating St. Henry on Saturday (at the New Knoxville Invitational), we knew they would come in here fired up, so we prepared for a lot defensively in this game," said an elated Ranger coach Jenny Fledderjohann. "We wanted to continue our defensive toughness and we needed to get in good position on them. I felt overall we did a good job on their hitters tonight and one of the biggest differences was that we were able to out-hustle them defensively." The Rangers dropped the first game 16-25, but went on to win the next two in overtime, 29-27 and 27-25. The Redskins answered with a victory in the fourth game, 25-22, but the home team rode a surge of momentum in game five to a 15-7 win, pushing their record to 11-1 overall on the season. New Knoxville is now 5-1 in the league, which creates a three-way tie with St. Henry and Marion Local for first place.
"I give all the credit in the world to New Knoxville tonight," commented a visibly upset Redskin coach Lori Schwieterman. "They came in here and had a great game plan and were able to take us out of a lot of our game. I told the girls that we have one league loss and there's a lot of volleyball yet to be played -- we just can't get down on ourselves. We need to figure out what we need to do to get better as a team from top to bottom."
St. Henry put on a clinic in the opening game as it jumped ahead early and never gave up the lead. The Redskins methodically pulled ahead as the game wore on until they built the lead to nine points to win game one, 25-16.
Both teams traded punches in the early stages of the second game before the Rangers took the lead, 14-12, forcing the Redskins to call timeout. With the Ranger fans growing by numbers and decibels, the home team didn't disappoint as they increased their lead to three points at 17-14 after a service ace from junior Meredith Fledderjohann. Just then, St. Henry captured a spark and enjoyed a 4-0 run to take the lead, 18-17.
The St. Henry advantage blossomed to as many as three points when junior Betsy Hoying stood tall at the net for block. From there, however, the Rangers regained control and didn't let it go, as an ace from junior Nicole Wright knotted the game at 24-24.
The home team faced a game-point on four more occasions until Alycia Niemeyer's final serve found a hole in the St. Henry defense to secure the 29-27 win.
For the first half of the third game, the Redskins built up a comfortable lead until three straight service points from Kellie Meyer helped pull the Rangers to within a point at 12-11. Later, with the game knotted at 24-apiece, an ace by Kayla Lefeld gave her Redskins the lead at 25-24, but the home team responded with the game's next three points to take the 27-25 victory.
Game four, although tight the entire way, was owned by the Redskins from beginning to end. Although neither team could muster up any consistency from behind the service line, St. Henry maintained its command and rolled to the 25-22 win, forcing a fifth and final game.
As much of a no-doubter as the opening contest was in the favor of St. Henry, the Rangers made game five look just as nonchalant.
Powered by solid serving from Haley Kruse and Nicole Wright, the Rangers jumped ahead early and never relinquished their lead. St. Henry seemed dazed and out of sync nearly the entire contest, before the Rangers finally applied the final touches on their 15-7 win -- an incredibly historic victory for the program.
"Right now we seem to be crumbling at different times," explained Schwieterman. "I really don't know why, but it's something we're going to have to figure out before next Thursday. We have had periods of inconsistency at different times this year, just not this long. We're going to have to make some drastic changes so that we can make better decisions on the court."
The Rangers are back in action against Delphos St. John's on Thursday, while the Redskins, 12-4 overall and 5-1 in the MAC, will play host to the Parkway Panthers on the same evening.