Volleyball: LA, St. Pius go to wire

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By Mike Cote

ALBUQUERQUE — It was within one point of being a comeback for the ages.

It had all the earmarkings of being a very short night for the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team in its opener Wednesday at St. Pius X. Los Alamos dropped the first two sets to St. Pius’ Sartans and was within four points of being swept by the bigger and more experienced squad.

Instead, Los Alamos rallied in the third set to keep itself alive, rallied again late in the fourth set, fending off two match points and led 14-13 in the final set.

The last rally of the contest, however, would favor the Sartans.

The Sartans fended off match point in the final set and won three straight points to take Wednesday’s match 25-23, 25-18, 22-25, 24-26, 16-14.

Nevertheless, the young Hilltopper squad left Sartan Garden feeling pretty good about itself.

“That was one of the best games I’ve ever played,” Hilltopper Oksana Tretiak said afterward. “It was a great way to start the season. It would’ve been better if we’d won, but still, it was a good game.”

The Sartans (1-0) came out aggressively in the first two sets, getting good production out of its middles.

Sam Brown had five spike kills in the first set and Ashley Newman got hot in the second set, racking up nine spike kills.

But after the initial onslaught, the Hilltopper defense anchored in and sparked the comeback that would put the Sartans back on their heels.

In set three with St. Pius having already earned four straight points to go up 20-17, a good back-row dig by the Hilltoppers led to a strong back-row spike kill from Alexandra Nichols, which caught St. Pius by surprise.

St. Pius would go up 21-19, but Los Alamos would win six of the next seven points, getting a big block at the net from Taylor Ealey to take a 22-21 edge and forcing Kylee Berger to hit into the net twice to close out the set and remain alive.

Los Alamos (0-1) got the big defensive pick-ups when it needed them, including a huge block kill from Tretiak in the fourth set — the 5-foot-9 Tretiak stuffed the 6-foot Newman at the net giving the Hilltoppers a big spark early — but the Hilltopper offense never got on track Wednesday.

Middle hitter Ealey, who will likely be a main focus of Los Alamos’ offense throughout the course of the season, had a quiet outing Wednesday.

“We couldn’t get it going,” Hilltopper head coach Diana Stokes said. “We’d like to get Taylor hitting a lot more ones, but our passing wasn’t allowing us to get more of those ones.”

The offense had its best showing in the fourth set Wednesday, with Nichols, who had a solid outing from the outside, picking up a pair of spike kills and Tretiak and Ealey both getting in a spike kill each.

But setter Jessica Stokes had the play of the match for the Hilltoppers in the fourth set, digging up a spike attempt from behind her own 10-foot line and putting it in the Sartans’ deep right corner to give the Hilltoppers a 21-17 edge.

The Sartans would actually take 23-22 a late lead, with Brown thumping a short set to the ground, and go up 24-22 before Los Alamos put together a late four-point rally to win. An Ealey spike kill sealed the set win.

Los Alamos and St. Pius would trade the lead four times in the fifth set, but late kills by Brown and Newman would finish off the Hilltoppers’ comeback attempt.

“We could’ve put it away,” Stokes said. “We were this close to putting it away. With those digs we dug up, we could’ve had it. The very last two points are the kind of points you see at the state finals.”

The two teams had an extended rally at Los Alamos’ match point with each team picking up three big digs before Brown earned a block kill that dropped just inside the left sideline, then another long rally at the Sartans’ match point before Newman’s well-placed spike ended it.

Newman ended the match with 14 spike kills and Brown added 11 more. Nichols had nine spike kills for the Hilltoppers and Ealey finished with four.

Los Alamos, which scheduled a brutal nondistrict card, will take on another archrival, Pojoaque. The Elks, which will host the Hilltoppres at Jacona Gym Saturday, are considered to be a Class AAA contender this season.

“After this game, we’re even with (Pojoaque),” Tretiak said. “We want to hand it to them. We’re really prepared.”