BCLUW’s balance bounces Mustangs

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE - BCLUW junior outside hitter Jade Hammers (4) puts down the final point of the match against East Marshall on Monday night in Conrad. The Comets swept the Mustangs, 25-19, 25-10, 25-20.

CONRAD — If BCLUW’s setter is scoring points against you, it’s bound to be a struggle stopping the Comets.

The BCLUW volleyball team took advantage of East Marshall’s inexperience and made quick work of the Mustangs in Monday’s NICL West Division contest, sweeping its way to a 25-19, 25-10, 25-20 victory in a match that lasted just 65 minutes.

The Comets’ balanced attack was too much for the Mustangs from the jump. BCLUW senior setter Cate Nason dumped the ball over the net for back-to-back kills in the early stages of Monday’s opening set, giving the Comets a lead they relinquished only once for the remainder of the night.

Eight different players had kills for BCLUW (10-4, 3-0), which charted its fifth-straight win heading into Thursday’s conference contest at Class 2A No. 1 Grundy Center.

“That is definitely one of our strengths this year,” Comet head coach Kristen Garber said of her team’s varied attack. “I think the girls are seeing that and enjoying that. They all know they might not be the big stud on any given night, but they might be on any given night, so everybody’s ready to go and it’s been fun to watch different kids step up at different times.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Junior outside hitter Jade Hammers led BCLUW on the night with 10 kills, Easton Swanson scored eight kills, Madison Ubben had five kills and Kennedy Williams delivered four kills during a well-rounded match for the junior middle hitter.

The balanced attack is a departure from last season’s offense for BCLUW, which was spearheaded by Swanson’s 436 kills — good for seventh in 2A and 15th in the entire state. Swanson remains the team leader in kills, but she’s clearly not the Comets’ only option.

“Jade’s really been big for us at the end of several matches,” said Garber. “Tonight she had the last three or four kills and it’s timely — she’s stepping up when we need her to and it’s good to see girls have that confidence.

“That’s the second or third time we’ve ended up at what could be the deciding points and we’ve got Jade there on the outside and so far it’s worked out well for us.”

BCLUW’s multi-faceted attack was more than East Marshall could handle. The Mustangs (6-10, 1-2) withstood what they could defensively, but struggled to counterpunch in spite of senior Juliana Arifi’s efforts at the net.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Arifi, who has 63 percent of her team’s kills so far this season, ended the night with a match-high 12 kills — only four in the final two sets, however.

“She hits a great back-row ball, I feel like she’s got great power, but it’s just so hard to control from back there so your percentage is going to go down,” East Marshall head coach Terri Westendorf said. “She can only do what she can with what she gets. We talk about the fact that the kill stat is dependent on the assist and the pass right before it — you’ve got to understand there’s times she’s handcuffed because of where the ball is sent.”

BCLUW led by as many as seven points in the opening set before Arifi fired back to get the Mustangs within four. The Comets’ ensuing four-point surge came courtesy East Marshall errors, and Bailey Ashton’s tip kill got BCLUW within two points of winning the first set.

Arifi rocketed a kill out of the back row and then moved to the net for another to make it 23-17, but a serving error stalled the Mustangs’ comeback. Williams eventually tallied the final point in the 25-19 opener.

In game two, BCLUW got out to a 13-5 lead that East Marshall was unable to counter, and the Comets’ defense did its part to make sure of that. Senior defensive specialist Taryn Gall came up with a huge dig on an Arifi attack that turned into a BCLUW point, and back-to-back blocks by Lizzie Garber and Williams on Arifi led to a successful kill for Williams to make it 19-7. Ashton’s accompanying ace was followed by a pair of kills for Madison Ubben and an Ubben block to finish off the 25-10 second set.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

“I didn’t even feel like Easton Swanson had the most kills on their team,” Westendorf said shortly after the conclusion of the match. “I felt like [BCLUW] did a nice job of spreading it out — they ran a great offense. There were moments when we did a really great job of digging them, and obviously we are smaller than they are and were scrappy at moments, but it’s just the consistency factor for us and doing it every single point the same way.”

The Comets rolled out an alternate lineup for the third set and struggled to put the Mustangs way. BCLUW pulled in front 18-13 before Arifi served up a 6-0 run to give East Marshall a 19-18 lead — the team’s only other lead after scoring the first point of the evening.

But three-straight Mustang miscues proved costly as BCLUW regained control for good, and Hammers hammered down the final three points to put the match away.

“We had a little bit different lineup mixing up a couple people, trying to get a couple different passing combinations and change up some of our setter-hitter combinations,” coach Garber said. “The girls like what they know so when I threw out this change they were a little unsure about it … but overall I thought it was fine.

“I don’t feel like we have to tinker, but we always want to make sure we’re putting the best combination on the court so we just thought we’ll give it a try and some Saturday tournaments we’ll pull it out again. I think it’s good to keep them on their toes and keep looking for that best combination.”

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

Setters Nason and Garber had 15 assists apiece, while Ubben led the defense with eight digs, three blocks and 19-of-20 serving with two aces. Olivia Hughes added five digs and 9-for-9 serving with an ace, and Parker Scurr had four digs and 7-for-8 serving with another ace.

Coach Garber also gave senior Lili Wilson a spot in the starting lineup, something she has earned so far this season.

“She’s had a great attitude all season, she’s been ready whenever we’ve called her to go in, she hasn’t had a ton of playing time but I just felt like she deserved the start,” coach Garber said. “We put her in there tonight and I wasn’t really that nervous to not have the normal starting six in.

“We actually got a lot of people in and in some different spots. It’s fun to be able to have some options and be confident enough in all of our players to be able to do that.”

It’s been the polar opposite for Westendorf. Her mostly inexperienced squad has struggled with confidence due to a general lack of success, whether it’s attacking at the net, on serve-receive or even at the service line.

T-R PHOTO BY ROSS THEDE

One way or another, her Mustangs need to make up their minds about how they’re going to respond to any and all adversity.

“You’ve only got two girls out there that have seen much varsity time and there’s a lot of girls that are playing hard, just playing without a lot of confidence,” Westendorf said, “and the only way you get it is by being successful and that’s been hard to come by. You can’t fault their effort, we’re working hard and trying to do the things I’m asking them to do, I’d just like them to get a little more consistent with it.”

Arifi finished with 12 kills, seven digs and 15-of-15 serving with three aces to lead the Mustangs in defeat. Genesis Wanatee tallied four kills and one block, while Macy Frese had three kills and two blocks. Suda Leschin led up front with three blocks, while setter Maria Rasmusson totaled 17 assists, two blocks and 6-of-7 serving.

Quin Damman chalked up a team-leading 10 digs, Zoeie Fontanini added five digs, and Karissa Young served 9-for-10.

Both teams are back in action Thursday, as East Marshall hosts AGWSR while BCLUW travels to take on unbeaten and top-ranked Grundy Center.