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BERNALILLO — In their district openers, the Los Alamos Hilltopper and Bernalillo Spartan volleyball teams picked up right where they left off in the 2010 season.
Bernalillo gave Los Alamos its toughest District 2-4A contest last year and, with a veteran lineup returning, was looking to pick up a win right off the bat.
But, despite some up-and-down offense and falling behind in every set, the Hilltoppers escaped with a hard-fought four-set win at Spartan Gymnasium. The Hilltoppers dropped the first set 19-25, but bounced back to sweep the final three sets 25-20, 25-22, 25-21 in their 2011 district opener Wednesday.
Los Alamos struggled to get on track early, but a big rally with star player Chase Ealey serving in the second set finally seemed to get the team going. Los Alamos, already down a set, trailed 7-3 early in the second set before Ealey reeled off 10 straight points from the service line.
Ealey had a good mixture of knuckleballs and serves with heavy backspin which drove the Spartans’ service-receiving crew into a frenzy.
Ealey, like the rest of the Hilltoppers, struggled to get into her rhythm, Wednesday and was relieved to get the win.
“I’m really excited about it,” said Ealey who had a career high 32 spike kills two weeks earlier against St. Michael’s. “We were really nervous, but we prepared for it in practice and we felt like we were ready.”
Los Alamos and Bernalillo were a combined 18-4 on the season heading into the district opener, with Bernalillo winning nine straight contests to open its 2011 season.
Bernalillo, which had been relegated to the 2-4A cellar for several years, showed signs of life in 2010, particularly against Los Alamos, nearly pulling off a huge upset on the Hill halfway through the district season.
This season, Los Alamos head coach Garry Maskaly said the Spartans are a legitimate threat and could be the district’s second-best team right now.
“Bernalillo’s a really solid team,” Maskaly said. “I’ve been saying they’re going to be No. 2 in this district. They’re playing great volleyball. They have a lot of seniors that have been playing since they were freshmen.”
Even though the Hilltoppers (10-3 overall, 1-0 in 2-4A) never got fully cranked up offensively other than Ealey’s service run in the second set, they got enough good contributions from virtually everyone who got into the match to get through the rough spots.
Alicia Rendon on the outside had perhaps the team’s most consistent showing. Rendon finished with 17 spike kills — second on the match behind only Ealey’s 19 — including six in the fourth set.
Los Alamos trailed for much of the fourth set as Bernalillo was battling to stay alive. Bernalillo went up 13-8, but Rendon, a senior, came through with a big spike kill after an extended rally to tie the score at 13, then put a shot straight down the right sideline to make the score 24-21 and put the Hilltoppers in position to close out the contest.
“I knew it was important for us to do well,” Rendon said. “We knew we had to work hard. They’re not an easy team. It’s good to have good competition in district.”
Bernalillo (9-2 overall, 0-1 in 2-4A) displayed a good combination of size at the net and defense on the back line. Seniors Chelsea Darnell and Sara McPhee provided a good one-two punch at the line and kept Los Alamos’ blockers scrambling.
Interestingly, both teams seemed to settle for dinking and dunking for a good portion of the match’s first two sets before they decided to slug it out in the final two sets.
Ealey had 10 spike kills in the third set, getting dialed in after misfiring several times early. Ealey had spent much of the previous three weeks getting adjusted to hitting from the outside, while Carli Downs was moved into the middle. Ealey said she’s still getting used to hitting from the outside and is still working on several adjustments to her technique.
Los Alamos and Bernalillo were knotted at 21 late in the fourth set, but got two quick points to go up 23-21. With Los Alamos trying to put the game away, sophomore Samantha Fenner stuffed Darnell at the net with Darnell taking a huge swing toward the right side of the Hilltopper defense, which had gotten out of position.
Fenner’s block went straight down to the floor at Darnell’s feet, putting Los Alamos within one point of victory. Erin Kirk’s let-serve ace on the following point sealed the deal.
Still, Darnell and McPhee both collected 12 spike kills and Darnell finished with seven block kills.
“Bernalillo runs a lot of fast sets,” Fenner said. “It’s harder to get up and close out that block.”
Los Alamos is seeking its fourth consecutive district title. It went undefeated in the 2010 season against 2-4A competition and also claimed the district tournament championship.