ROCK FALLS – Though each set stayed relatively close throughout, the Rock Falls volleyball team knocked off cross-river rival and defending Class 3A state champion Sterling 25-21, 25-19 on Tuesday at Tabor Gym.
Sterling’s Kate Rowzee opened the game with a kill to put the Warriors up 1-0 in the first set. While that was the only lead Sterling would have all night, the Rockets were never too far ahead, and handful of five-point leads was the biggest margins Rock Falls would manage in the first set. Rock Falls then pulled away late in the second set to break a 13-13 tie.
“We just had to regroup and tell ourselves to keep going,” Rock Falls sophomore outside hitter Maya Sands said. “We just needed to adjust and just pick ourselves up again.”
Even individual points were at times hard to come by, with one team getting into system and setting things up nicely for their hitters who had a good swing, only for the other team to get a dig up and send it right back.
“They were getting a lot of touches and digging up a lot of our hits,” Sterling senior outside hitter Grace Gould said. “When you have defense like that on the other end, they push you to stay clean, and we weren’t always clean at the time.”
Maddie Sands had 17 digs for the Rockets. Maya Sands added 10.
Rock Falls kept a balanced attack with Maya Sands leading the way with six kills, and Elise Moeller, Mallory Pinske and Kennedy Shaw all had five kills. Vanessa Romo had four kills to go with five blocks.
“Our passing is good, it’s been great this whole start of the season,” Rock Falls coach Sheila Pillars said. “If we can keep that up, that’s what we’re able to do. I have six capable hitters at any given time at the net, and [Tuesday] we got into a little bit of a rut where we wanted to keep setting the outside, but when we went away from the outside, that’s when we started getting our kills. We just have to keep remembering that we have middle hitters and we have right-side hitters. Games like this, the more you can spread it around, the more effective you’re going to be.”
Sterling funneled most of its hits through Grace Egan and Bree Borum, with Egan leading the way with 13 kills and Borum sending down seven to go with her 12 assists.
“We knew where they were going to hit the ball,” Pillars said. “If Bree set it, it was going to Egan, and if she didn’t set it, then she was going to get the ball. We gave up a lot of points just on not putting our hands in the right spot in the block, and we missed serves. Otherwise, I thought we fought for every point. I thought we gave them everything that they could handle.”
It was Egan often coming up with plays when the Warriors needed them. She and Macie Gebhardt teamed up for a block early in the first set to tie the score 2-2 after Rock Falls had jumped ahead on kills by Romo and Maya Sands. Egan then had several more kills to keep things close later in the set. In the second set, she twice got kills to tie the score early on, then moments later had a pair of kills in the span of three points to cut deficits to one. After Rock Falls moved to the verge of closing things out, Egan had another kill to keep the match going.
“She kind of got thrust into the outside hitter one role, so she’s got to take a bigger role as a freshman than we wanted her to at this point of the season,” Dykeman said. “She’s thriving, 32 swings, 13 kills. She’s hitting about .300. That’s pretty good for a freshman going against a team that plays defense the way Rock Falls plays defense.”
Rock Falls (9-0) kept coming up with answers. After Egan’s block to tie the first set 2-2, Shaw had a kill and a block to help the Rockets regain the lead. Sterling got to within two points at 12-10 in the first set before Shaw added another kill, Moeller chipped in one of her own, and Maya Sands served two aces in the span of three points to extend the lead back out to 16-10.
“We tried blocking cross because we noticed that she hits cross a lot to make her go to the line,” Romo said. “But we got it up every time she went down the line.”
Sterling (10-4) tied the second set at 13-13 on a kill by Gould, but a pair of double-hit violations, Maya Sands slamming down an overpass, and an ace by Moeller put the Rockets back in front 17-13.
“Their defense was really far back, so we noticed that short shots like roll shots were really working,” Maya Sands said. “Sometimes they adjusted to that, so we had to go either deep or sharp across because they were blocking line a lot.”
The game was the first back in the Warriors lineup for Lexi Rodriguez. The Sterling junior libero just got back home Monday after winning a gold medal for the U.S. Youth National Team at the FIVB girls U-18 world championships in Egypt.
“It helps out a ton, especially in serve-receive,” Dykeman said. “When it comes to system defense, you see a kid that literally got back yesterday with one practice, there’s going to be some growing pains as she assimilates back into the back row and as they learn on the floor her depth and range. There’s going to be a little bit of growing because these kids have 10 or 12 practices with her and she’s been gone 3½ weeks. It definitely helps when you have a person of that caliber in the back row.”
Rock Falls recognized her for her play with the national team before the game started, drawing “U.S.A.” chants from the student section at Tabor Gym. Rodriguez had 12 digs.
Gould had 10 digs for Sterling.
Audra Goff had 12 assists for the Rockets, and Shaw added eight.
It is the Rockets’ first win over Sterling in more than a dozen tries, dating back to a regional final in 2012. Sterling beat the Rockets in straight sets at Musgrove Fieldhouse last year after beating them four times in 2016, including a three-set match in the final of the Dixon Tournament.
“I think it shows a lot of potential in our group,” Romo said. “We have a lot of returning players, but I just feel like we have a lot of potential, especially for the postseason.”
Rock Falls def. Sterling 25-21, 25-19
Star of the game: Maya Sands, Rock Falls, six kills, 10 digs
Key performers: Grace Egan, Sterling, 13 kills; Bree Borum, Sterling, seven kills, 12 assists; Audra Goff, Rock Falls, 12 assists; Kennedy Shaw, Rock Falls, five kills, seven digs, eight assists; Maddie Sands, Rock Falls, 17 digs
UP next: Rock Falls at Oregon, 6 p.m. Thursday; Sterling at Rock Island, 7 p.m. Thursday