IRONWOOD — In an Indianhead Conference East Division volleyball showdown of undefeated teams, Mercer cranked up the intensity and emotion and swept the Ironwood Red Devils 25-21, 25-18 and 25-18 at the John Krznarich Gym on Thursday night.
With the win, the Tigers gained at least a share of the Eastern Conference title and made Robyn Schoeneman one happy coach. Mercer is 4-0 in the conference race, while Ironwood is now 3-1. Both have one conference game left.
“We really wanted to win this game,” Schoeneman said. “There’s been a lot of talk about this game. Ironwood is a very good team, but we raised our level of play. It was a great match, but we didn’t play our best match at all. We got caught up in a tipping game and we usually rely on our hitters. We won it with defense and ball placement.
“The kids continue to surprise me. I give them days off to rest and they want to practice. They deserve everything they get. If we win the (East) division, awesome. Then the next goal would be to beat the West Conference champion (Oct. 17). That would be pretty incredible.”
Ironwood coach Lisa Graham said the Red Devils had also been trying to peak for the game and had been talking about the contest for about 1.5 weeks. Graham said they were looking to play their best volleyball but didn’t.
“We didn’t have much emotion,” Graham said. “I was trying to get them to pick up their emotion and build some momentum. Sarah Johnson had her best defensive game, but we couldn’t get anyone else into it. Our heads were not quite there. It’s disappointing, but the season’s not over and there’s a lot of games to play. We’re building for the district tournament.
“Mercer is scrappy and young and will be good for a few more years. They’re a tough team and a good defensive team. They picked up everything we hit at them.”
Mercer jumped out in front of Ironwood in game one when Lexi Engler made a nice tip shot to the back line for a 6-5 lead. Engler and sophomore Sarah Kirchoff served aces as the Tigers took a 11-6 advantage.
Mercer seemed to be getting warmed up and gaining momentum the longer the game went.
Ironwood’s Mariah Beaudette’s block closed the gap to 12-11, but Mercer negated Ironwood’s power game by returning many of their kills and tips.
The Red Devils got within one point at 22-21 when the Tigers air-mailed a kill shot, but Ironwood returned the favor. And an Ironwood net violation and a hard kill by Engler sealed the first set, 25-21.
Featuring a booming kill by Nikki Kempf and cross-court kills by Engler and Camille Kich, Mercer took a 7-4 lead in the second game.
But with Kassie Wiedower serving, Mercer reeled off four service points to regain the lead at 14-9.
Mercer had increased its lead to 24-13 when Ironwood had a mini-rally. Sophomore Emily DiGiorgio slammed a kill. The Tigers had three shots go wide or long and Katie Erickson’s overhead shot fell in, but Ironwood’s next serve went into the net as Mercer won 25-18.
Mercer seemed to gain more confidence as the match went on. In game three, the Red Devils could not get any closer to the lead than 3-4 points, although a tip by Erickson and a Beaudette kill did shrink the lead to 13-12 at one point. But Mercer grabbed the momentum back and went on to win the set and match at 25-18.
Mercer has 34 students in its high school but has still managed to win 15 of its 16 games against larger schools, some much larger. And Schoeneman has a pretty good idea how it happens.
“Our teams have a lot of heart,” Schoeneman said. “They love volleyball and are dedicated to year-long volleyball. They play all summer and have summer leagues And they attend camps. It’s like a big family and sometimes we beat bigger schools.”
Kempf led the Tigers with 12 kills, while Engler added nine more and Sydney Thompson slammed eight kills and six aces. Kassie Wiedower dished out 15 assists to go with three aces and freshman Caitlyn Hiller had 13 assists.
Graham said Ironwood had some of its lowest kill production this season as Beaudette once gain led the team with five and DiGiorgio and Erickson notched four kills. Jessica Gering and Johnson had two. Erickson also contributed 17 assists from her setter spot.
Both teams will play in the Ironwood Invitational this Saturday and it would not be a big surprise to see a rematch between the two teams.
Ironwood won the JV contest 2-1.