Lions, SJA match wits in potential state title match preview

August became October, Lenexa replaced Topeka and St. James Academy stood in place of the Expocentre Saturday night in the season opener for prep volleyball.

The only thing missing was the Class 5A state title trophy for the winner between the host Thunder and the Lansing Lions in the last match of the day for the Spectrum Sports Volleyball Slam.

Despite struggling in serve receive and service and taking a good portion of the match to figure out its blocking scheme, the visiting Lions would battle the perennial power Thunder to a dramatic and intense third and deciding set, before falling 27-25 in a match too good for a state title match in front of a rapturous crowd.

“We struggled because they ran such a fast offense, but we did better (as the match went on),” Lansing head coach Julie Slater said. “We had opportunities and let it slip away. You can’t make those errors against that team. It’s OK. What an incredible first match. We are there. We are right there.

“I was pleased with (play at the net), but we had a tough time getting them out of system. They were passing lights out. That’s tough and that’s St. James. That’s what they do. We try to pride ourselves in that too.”

Lansing junior Rachel Fairbanks finished with 16 kills while hitting an outstanding .700 on the night.

Also, Lacey Angello (eight kills, eight digs), Karli Schmidt (four kills, two total blocks),  Amelia VanDerWerff (four kills, three total blocks), Kennedy Farris (12 digs) and Taylor Lang (six digs).

As the match proceeded, the imposing Lansing front row of multiple 6-footers, began to take over the net as St. James found itself only able to take the line on attack or have to hit from four, five feet and beyond from the outside to make a play, although they were successful enough times to contribute to their win.

“Especially at the beginning, you are not connected with your pins yet, you all have a different technique and do different things so that’s going to take time to perfect,” Fairbanks said. “Once we do, we are unstoppable in our block. With me and Karli and Amelia, we are really hard to get through. They were shutting down once they saw our block (working).

“They did hit a lot of line and we have our shortest player on the right side and their outside Allison Coens is amazing. She will find that. That’s something where you have to adjust. If we take away those shots, there is nowhere they can go, but tips, but with us that’s going to be covered if that’s the case. We would adjust to that.”

Both teams went to state in 2016 and both look primed to repeat the feat and potentially do this all over again in Topeka for the big ring.

St. James Academy won the first 25-20 and Lansing took the middle one, 25-21, before the two waged battle in a third set that will be remembered for years to come.

It was there when Lansing took an apparent, 20-18 lead and had a grip on the momentum, but the officials conferred after the Thunder coaching staff demanded a call be made, that neither official had seen.

Yet, the officials did call Lansing setter Courtney Rexroat for a dubious back-row attack even though it would have come after a clear reaching over the net infraction by a St. James front row player.

That levelled the score at 19-all and St. James rallied to take 21-19 lead, but Lansing fought back to take a 24-23 edge and serve for the win on the Thunder’s home court, but to no avail as the attempt sailed out to tie the match.

Shortly after that the Thunder squeaked out the win.

“When we come out and play our game from the beginning – that being our serve-receive on point and no unforced errors and our blocking gets its timing down…I think it’s going to be a really good season for us,” Farris said. “We’re going to go really far, but we need to start playing to our full potential and once we do, we are going to be very successful.

“You can’t coach someone who shuts down and you have to want to go out there, keep going and go get it. You can’t control what the refs do or say…there is no going back on it. You can argue for so long, but it doesn’t always work. You have to bounce back.”

Oh, and by the way? This was the first match of the season.

“That was amazing,” Farris said. “I don’t think I have played in that kind of game in my entire high school career.”