Volleyball: Toppers stun Horsemen on road

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By Mike Cote

SANTA FE — Perez-Shelley Gymnasium hasn’t exactly been home away from home for the Los Alamos Hilltopper volleyball team.

More often than not, the storied gym smack-dab in the middle of the main building on St. Michael’s campus has been unwelcoming to the Hilltoppers, as has its primary resident, the Horsemen volleyball team.

Not so much Tuesday night, however.

The Hilltoppers, who don’t win very often against the Horsemen, let alone pull off a decisive win at Perez-Shelley Gym, did just that Tuesday, sweeping St. Michael’s 25-20, 25-19, 25-15.

That the win was a special one wasn’t something that was lost on the young Hilltopper squad.

“I’m just glad we beat them,” outside hitter Sabrina Little said. “We played up to their level.”

Los Alamos was dominant at the net Tuesday, that despite being across from the 6-foot, 3-inch freshman Sarah Hattis in St. Michael’s middle.

Hattis’ looming presence, ironically, turned out to be a blessing in disguise for the Hilltoppers.

With Hattis blocking in the middle, Los Alamos started looking early in the match for hitting lanes toward the outside. Its outside hitting was effective all night and neutralized Hattis’ big block in the center.

Little, a sophomore, and junior Taylor Ealey did much of the hitting damage Tuesday. Little had five spike kills in a big first game, and she finished with 13 for the contest, while Ealey had eight spike kills and two big block kills on back-to-back points in the third game, effectively snuffing out any hopes of a late-game comeback by the Horsemen.

Setter Jessica Stokes, the team’s lone senior, had 25 assists in the three games.

Los Alamos, which will finish up a brutal nondistrict schedule with its first two home dates of the season next week, has managed to pick up a few tricks during that time, something head coach Diana Stokes thought was another factor in Tuesday’s win.

“We’ve had a tough road so far,” said Stokes, who picked up just her second win over St. Michael’s in her six-year tenure. “They needed a good win like this to give them a boost.”

The Hilltoppers got it and in the process improved to .500 on the season (5-5).

Along with the solid hitting performances, Los Alamos sent St. Michael’s some very hard serves, which the Horsemen service-return team struggled with, especially late.

Outside hitter Alex Nichols fired two aces in Los Alamos’ first side-out of the third game, helping her squad jump out to a 5-1 edge early.

Los Alamos never trailed in game three. After St. Mike’s closed the early deficit to 7-5, Los Alamos began to pull away and didn’t look back.

Little hit a bump set flat-footed from near the 10-foot line, angling it all the way through the St. Michael’s defense and just inside the sideline after an extended rally, giving the Hilltoppers a 23-14 advantage and all but slamming the door on St. Michael’s. It was her team-high 13th kill of the match.

“I think I did really good,” she said afterward. “I just wanted to go around their big blocker.”

Defensively, Nichols finished with five digs, while Shannon Burns earned three digs in the contest. Oksana Tretiak had two block kills on the night.

Los Alamos won just one of three matches at the Zia Classic, although Stokes said he was generally happy with the effort in all of those outings.

Los Alamos hung around for most of a four-game contest with Ruidoso, a Class AAA contender, and nearly came back from a 2-0 deficit against another AAA contender, Las Vegas Robertson.

Stokes said her players have come a long way in their 10 matches this season. The biggest change she’s seen, however, is their approach to playing these tougher teams.

“Being aggressive, that’s what I’ve been trying to get them to do,” Stokes said. “We did that the entire match (Tuesday). They’re also playing with a lot more confidence. One bad play didn’t knock them down.”

Los Alamos will have another crack at two teams it has already lost to this season. It hosts Robertson Sept. 23 — the home opener — and entertains the top-ranked Moriarty Pintos two nights later.

District 2AAA, in which St. Michael’s plays, may be the toughest district in the entire state with Robertson, Pojoaque and Santa Fe Indian School all looking impressive in 2008.