Rockets disrupt Spartan system with their own in 2-0 conference win

(St. Joseph) - With bragging rights and a conference loss on the line, Unity's road match in the St. Joseph-Ogden High School Main Gym had all ambiance and weight of a state semifinal match. There were two vocal student cheering sections, almost 300 fans, and two teams both loaded with athletic talent ready to clash. In the end, the Rockets broke a five-season losing streak, systematically defeating the Spartans, 2-0.

Unity's Maddie Reed sets the ball
PhotoNews Media/Clark Brooks
Maddie Reed sets the ball behind her during the second set action against the Spartans. Reed collected 19 assists and seven digs for the Rockets. Tucking away their second conference win of the season, Unity improved to 14-0 with the win over SJO.

Trading salvos in the first set, SJO (10-4) and the Rockets (14-0) held the scoring deficit at any given time to just points until the score reached 11-all. Suddenly, there was a shift in the offensive momentum that had Unity surged ahead on the scoreboard courtesy of a five-point run to go up 16-11 over the St. Joseph-Ogden. Unable to hold serve or shift the flow of the game in their favor thanks to their opponents' scrappy defensive play, the Spartans were outscored 9-2 from that point on en route to a 25-13 finish.

"We struggled on defense. They did a nice job mixing up their offense, keeping us on our heels all night long," said SJO head coach Abby McDonald. "We were never in system from the beginning. Our defense wasn't there tonight. Defense wins ball games and it was a real struggle for us."

While SJO struggled on defense, the Rockets excelled at it on Tuesday evening.

"We changed up our defense to defend against their outsides better," explained Unity's new head coach, Erika Yerry. "We know they have some pretty good hitters on the outside so we focused on blocking line and moving our defenders behind it so we could dig a few more balls and be in system."

The second set started much like the first with teams trading points until the score was tied at 7-all. The Spartans quickly added two more points forcing Yerry to call a timeout at 10-7. Soon, down by five, the Rockets started to methodically claw their way back into the set.

Yerry credited her team's success to playing tough defensively and serving tough.

"Our main goal was to get them out of system. So as long as we kept digging and serving them to be out of system then we had a chance to score a point," Yerry said. "My libero, Taylor Henry, did a good job of adjusting her defensive position and Katie Moore did a great job of block (the) line."

Down 21-19, Unity closed out the second set with six consecutive points for the 25-21 victory.

"We've got to clean up our serve receive. Our first ball contact was difficult for us tonight," McDonald pointed out. "Our setter was working as hard as she could. We just struggled in lots of areas of the game. I think the biggest part is just or mental game right now has to be stronger."

While it may have been a tough loss to swallow against their cross-county rivals, the Spartans were in a similar position with four losses at the end of September in 2019. The program did not lose another match until the state semifinal, setting up a Class 2A third-place finish.

"We've got to have leadership when we need it and not just when things are going good. It's got to be there when things are rough. These are all learning moments for us," McDonald said looking at the competition that still lies ahead. "Hopefully we can use this to make us better. We always say 'What comes in October'. Hopefully, this match is one they can look back on and learned something from."