October 12th, 2017

Harris leads Jaguars to victory over Valkyries


Paul Najjar

Senior Writer

Harris leads Jaguars to victory over Valkyries
Mercy libero Lauren Tharp digs up a SHA attack / cover: Neci Harris and Elena Scott put up a big block against SHA's Cat Schmid / photos: Holly Koval

While schools may be on fall break, the volleyball action takes no time off in the first quarter of the academic year.

And when the No. 2-ranked Mercy Jaguars traveled to play at the No. 3-ranked Sacred Heart Valkyries, extra time, as in a fifth set, was needed to settle this score.

It was the visiting Jaguars, riding the broad shoulders of MB Neci Harris, clawing back late in the fifth set to secure a thrilling 25-23, 25-22, 18-25, 18-25, 19-17 victory.

The level of play was stellar throughout from both sides. At the net, the taller, more athletic Mercy hitters earned a slight advantage, with 66 kills and 10 stuff blocks. On defense, the Valkyries, led by libero Anna Burke (18 digs), frustrated the Jaguars attack with a relentless pursuit of the ball and a never give up attitude.

But it was Harris upping her game when the stakes were highest in crushing four kills and stuffing three blocks in the decisive fifth set that sent her team home victorious.

One of the best games of the season, no doubt.

“Feed Neci! Set Neci!” Mercy libero Lauren Tharp said of the game plan late in the match. “She was just awesome tonight.”

On her way to a match-high 22 kills and four stuff blocks, Harris peppered the Valkyries with 15 kills and four blocks in the three sets won by her Jaguars.

“You’ve got to win these matches going down to the wire,” Mercy head coach Matt Thomerson said of these huge late-season contests. “Sacred Heart’s a great team and this is our last chance to battle one of the best teams in the state. Games as big as this and as competitive as this at this point in the schedule are invaluable for our team in preparing for the post-season.”

For the defending state champion Valkyries (21-13), the result may not have been what they wanted but it revealed the heart of this inexperienced squad. SHA lost twice earlier this year to Mercy, but showed tremendous grit in coming back from down 2-0 to take the match to a decisive fifth set.

“We were playing really well and though we didn’t have a couple of plays go our way, we kept challenging the team to keep working,” Sacred Heart head coach Brett Versen said. “Eventually we got a few bounces go our way, got the momentum but when we gave Mercy an inch, they took a foot. We had their backs against the wall, gave them a little something and credit to them, they ran with it. Good teams don’t give up, they keep pushing and fighting.”

The one, slight advantage on this night belonged to Mercy (27-6) in the form of the Harris. The 6-foot senior elevated her game finishing sets from freshman Elena Scott and junior Jenna Laemmle with flair. Her go-to play is the slide play and she converted on it 12 times; many of those with authority.

“It’s our last game at Sacred Heart and it’s coming down to our last season here at Mercy,” Harris said of the something extra that was evident in her game. “This is our chance; we want to play the best we can and practice as best we can because our goal is to get to the state tournament and win.”

Harris and her tall net mates Jayme Scott (15 kills, block, ace), Caitlyn Carpenter (nine kills, block), Elena Scott (who added seven kills to go with a couple dozen assists) and Emma Schurfranz (seven kills two blocks) were hot in sets one, two and five, but ran into some trouble in sets three and four.

That trouble came from an incredible defensive effort from the host Valkyries as well as some massive swings from outside hitters Cat Schmid (12 kills, three aces, block) and Heather Wethington (10 kills, block), middle blockers Cierra Scott (10 kills, two blocks) and Kristen Clemons (six kills, four blocks) and opposite hitter Olivia Fogo (11 kills, three aces).

All of these numbers could not have been achieved without the stellar play of setter/hitter Abigail Westenhofer. The senior recorded a triple-double. In volleyball parlance that would be 16 kills, 25 assists and 11 digs. The St. Louis University commit and key component to last year’s state title winning team sees great progress in this year’s group.

“We were burned early in the season and we didn’t like that feeling of losing, so we just started getting after it in practice,” Westenhofer said. “We’ve practiced so hard and it’s paying off. There’s a confidence in this team right now and everyone is feeding off of it.”

Though the Valkyries dropped the first two sets, their competitiveness pushed Mercy to the very end and set up SHA’s relatively easy third and fourth set wins.

“We needed to get through those rough patches and figure out the details of where we needed to be, what we needed to do and what our roles were on the court,” Versen said of his team’s development. “Once that came along, we’ve added that competitiveness and we’ve challenged them to play for each other. We want to keep that momentum and good play moving into the post season.”

In the fifth set SHA took leads of 10-8 and then a commanding 13-9 advantage before a Schurfranz kill gave Mercy some life. What gave the Jaguars even more life was back-to-back stuff blocks from Harris and Schurfranz to close the gap to 13-12. 

A Fogo kill gave the Valkyries a match-point opportunity but that was promptly squelched on a Harris (who else?) kill on the slide play. The senior followed that with another stuff block and a kill out of the middle to give Mercy a 15-14 edge. SHA would score the next two points but a 4-1 Mercy run secured the set and the match for the Jaguars.

Tharp and Burke were seemingly everywhere for their respective squads. They extended plays with outstanding positioning and at times provided a big lift when things weren’t going well.

“Our blockers were getting touches, but more importantly they were set in the right spots so often tonight,” Tharp said. “When they’re in good position like that, it makes it so much easier for us to read the ball and put it in-system for our offense. Sacred Heart swung hard and kept swinging at us and were really aggressive all night. While they didn’t put too many down, they were able to wipe it off hands and hit it high off our blocks. We made some good adjustments at the net and that helped.”

These talented teams will continue to make adjustments with rotations, special plays, new strategies and the like as they move into district and then regional play next week. While Mercy is the clear front-runner in the Sixth Region, Sacred Heart will undoubtedly square-off against No. 1-ranked Assumption at some point in the Seventh Region tournament.

Both squads will have Senior Night matches tomorrow with Mercy hosting Male and Sacred Heart hosting Waggener. 


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