The Notre Dame Pandas volleyball team is known for surfing for momentum waves and riding them to victory throughout its storied history.
The Pandas (18-1) did it again Friday in the 16th Annual Playing for a Purpose rivalry game against the St. Henry Crusaders (22-8) in a 3-1 (26-28, 27-25, 25-21, 25-15) victory in front of more than 2,000 fans at Boone County. Notre Dame has won three in a row in the series between the two teams that have combined to win the last three state championships.
“Throughout the match, I really felt we were struggling with our serving and that first contact,” said Leslie Litmer, Notre Dame co-coach. “That was really shifting the momentum. Certain people are effective on certain nights so we were trying to manage that. I do think that speaks to the depth. A lot of people are able to step in and play a lot of positions, which is definitely a bonus.”
Notre Dame started strong leading 7-1 in the first game. But St. Henry came back to win 28-26 and looked poised to go up 2-0 with a 22-16 lead in the second set. But Notre Dame found that momentum wave to come back to win the game and took control from there for the most part.
St. Henry did go up 4-0 to start the fourth game. But Notre Dame came back and to tie the game at 4-4. After three more ties, the Pandas took the lead for good and senior Ava Tilden ended it with three straight kills.
Both liberos had excellent games. Notre Dame junior Julia Grace had 24 digs and St. Henry senior Elizabeth Tabeling dug up 28 balls, landing two kills off two of them including one to end the first set in the left back row.
“I think it’s very teammate-oriented,” Grace said. “You don’t do it for yourself. Every ball I fight to get up, I’m doing it for the team so we can get that good set and then get a good kill and finish it.”
Overall, Notre Dame had 85 digs. With those smooth first passes, Notre Dame controlled the net with 54 kills, 49 assists, nine blocks and seven aces with four players landing double-digit kills while St. Henry had just three blocks. Notre Dame setter Lauren Ott dished out 44 assists to six different hitters.
Riley McCloskey spurred the comeback in the second game, finishing with 16 digs and 10 kills. Tilden led Notre Dame with 13 kills with Ella Goetz and Gracie Portwood landing 12 and 11, respectively.
“I think we just try to stay disciplined and try to just play our game,” Portwood said. “Even when we get down, we try to fight for those points. We try to play as a team. If we’re up, we try to stay up.”
Sophomore Audrey Dyas recorded five blocks to go with seven kills for the Pandas. Goetz and McCloskey rejected two each to go with two aces each.
“I feel like our block was good,” Goetz said. “Every hitter did a good job setting up the block and closing the block. Our defense was really good around the block, which helped us get the ball to the setter and run our offense fast.”
St. Henry finished with 73 digs, 38 kills, 30 assists and five aces. Macy Lentz had a nice game with 30 assists and 11 digs. Alivia Skidmore had 16 kills and 10 digs with Anna Guard landing 12 kills. Madi Demler and Lizzie Casey dug up 10 balls each and Demler landed two aces.
“My girls are always ready to play,” said Maureen Kaiser, St. Henry head coach. “We usually get a fast start on teams. But when we go late in a big, hot gym, we just don’t have the depth to finish teams off. Legs got heavy and tired. We ended up with single blocks instead of double blocks. The game just got away from us.”
Notre Dame plays at Cooper (6-10) on Tuesday at 7 p.m. St. Henry travels to Dixie Heights (9-12) at the same time.