Jamestown sweeps Wood in 4A state volleyball semis

Posted: November 22, 2013

RICHMOND — It’s understandable if Jill Couturiaux was feeling a little sense of déjà vu Thursday afternoon.

After watching her team look overmatched in the first set of its Group 4A state semifinal against Jamestown, the James Wood volleyball coach had to be wondering if it was going to be like 2012 all over again.

Back then the Colonels went quietly in their state quarterfinal match against the Eagles, never scoring more than 16 points in a three-set sweep that was over in a hurry.

But while a nine-point first set undoubtedly stirred up some bad memories Thursday, the performances in the second and third sets showed not only how far James Wood has come since last year, but also how bright its future is.

The Colonels shook off their ugly start and managed to push Jamestown to the brink in the final two sets before falling 3-0 (25-9, 25-22, 25-23) at VCU’s Siegel Center, sending the Eagles to their second finals appearance in three years where they’ll face Loudoun County, which swept Grafton in the other semifinal.

The end result may not have been what James Wood (26-4) was hoping for, but the determination to fight back and make a match of it was definitely a positive.

“I think it took us a little too long to find our rhythm, a little longer to find our rhythm than it took them,” Couturiaux said. “But I feel like once we found our rhythm we definitely put pressure on them.

“Overall I thought we played tremendous defense [Thursday] and I really couldn’t ask for anything more from my girls. I’m so proud that we made it this far.”

It looked like it would be a short-lived appearance early on when Jamestown (27-1), which has not lost since early September, rattled off the first five points of the opening set and forced Couturiaux to call a quick timeout.

Things didn’t get much better for the Colonels from there as the Eagles used a 13-3 run — which feature kills from five different players and six James Wood hitter errors — to put the set away early.

All told the Colonels committed eight hitting errors, managed just four kills as a team and scored consecutive points just once in the opening set.

“We came in excited, but we were just a little nervous to start,” said junior Ashley Hillyard, who said it took some time to adjust to playing in a more open-air arena like the Siegel Center. “We had watched videos of the court to get a feel of what it was like, but it’s really hard with the higher ceiling and everything. But we found our rhythm in the second and third set.”

That rhythm finally showed up in a four-point run early in the second set that featured a pair of kills from junior outside hitter Lindsey Painter (team-high 13 kills) and gave James Wood its first lead of the match at 6-4.

A four-point run by Jamestown, sparked by back-to-back kills from senior opposite Kelly Esch and freshman middle Ellie Popelka, gave the lead back to the Eagles, but the set remained close as Painter and Hillyard (15 assists, seven digs and five kills) hammered away at the Eagle defense.

“We passed much better in the second and third set,” Couturiaux said. “Once we maintained control in the serve receive we were able to put some points on the board offensively.”

Consecutive kills from Hillyard off the Jamestown block gave the Colonels the lead at 21-20, but the Eagles’ and their multi-option offense quickly answered.

Senior setter Monique St. Cyr (match-best 26 assists) fed freshman Ellie Popelka (team-high 10 kills) in the middle before going to fellow freshman Maria Esch on the outside to give Jamestown back to the lead for good.

Senior Megan Sullivan closed out the set with an ace.

“I thought all season long one of the reasons that we’re 27-1 and in the state championship game is that we have a really diversified offense,” said Jamestown coach Tom Stephenson, whose team finished with five players with at least five kills. “We go up against a lot of teams that have one hitter, maybe two hitters but … you can’t key on one player [with our offense] because we have players at every position who can hurt you.”

The third set played out much like the second set, with the two teams trading points before Jamestown went on a 7-2 run to open up a 23-17 lead.

Facing elimination, the Colonels mustered one last push as freshman Taylor Heishman put home a kill off a free ball and junior Abbye Prelip came off the bench and fired three straight aces to close the deficit to 23-22.

But a kill from Maria Esch (six kills) pushed the lead back up to two and, after Colonel senior Brandi Griffith again cut it to one with a tip over the block, senior Saskia Beitzell clinched the set and the match with her sixth kill.

“It’s hard to fight back after losing a set like [the first one] but I think we did a good job, it just took us too long to get into our rhythm,” Painter said. “We expected it to go to [Kelley Esch] most of the time, but it didn’t. We were all planning for it to go to her but they spread it around more than we expected.”

While the diversity of Jamestown’s attack may have caught the Colonels off guard at the net at times, Stephenson was quick to compliment the play of libero Ally Iden (match-best 17 digs) along the back line for helping keep James Wood in the match in the second and third sets.

“I thought we had a lot more offense than James Wood, but when you’ve got a libero who’s pretty much covering the whole back row … she dug a lot of balls that go down against a lot of the teams we played this season,” Stephenson said. “I thought she kept a lot of rallies alive for them and did an outstanding job covering the floor.”

Iden is one of 11 players who should be back for the Colonels next year. James Wood will only lose two seniors in Griffith and middle Molly Tierney, and should welcome back 2012 Northwestern District Player of the Year Katie Houser, who missed the entire season with a foot injury.

“We have a core group of players returning and I think we’ll be a solid team next season for sure,” Couturiaux said. “It’s tough to end on this note and to not make it to the finals, but at the same time this is a platform we have to build upon for next season.”

— Contact Kevin Trudgeon at ktrudgeon@winchesterstar.comFollow on Twitter @WinStarSports1