JACKSON CENTER — Jackson Center came through its first go-round against the meat grinder of the top half of the Shelby County Athletic League unscathed. All it took was balancing chaos.
Jackson Center beat Anna 25-19, 14-25, 26-24 and 25-10 in an SCAL match on Thursday to improve to 6-2 overall and 4-0 in league play. It capped off a big week for the Tigers, which beat Fort Loramie 3-2 on Tuesday.
In addition to this week’s wins, the Tigers beat Russia 3-2 on Aug. 23 and now sit alone atop the SCAL standings after topping the league’s three other heavyweights. It’s a big difference from last season, when Jackson Center started 1-2 against Russia, Anna and Loramie and ultimately finished fourth in the SCAL with an 8-4 record.
“It was honestly nice not to have a five-set match tonight, but it’s one of those scenarios that mentally, you can see the kids are up for that challenge and can stick with it,” Jackson Center coach Kim Metz said. “They’re finding different things to do and creating plays.
“It’s a game of chaos — you’ve got to be ready to handle chaos at any given point and make sure that you can see what’s happening. Sometimes you never know where the ball is going to come from, so you have to balance that chaos.”
Against all three opponents, Jackson Center faced chaos after taking early leads. Russia won the third and fourth sets to force a decisive game five and Fort Loramie won the second and fourth sets on Tuesday for force a fifth game.
The chaos came in the second set on Thursday against Anna (7-3, 3-2).
After the teams swapped points early in the first set, Jackson Center scored five of six points to take a 14-10 lead and pulled away to a 25-19 win.
But the Tigers looked completely different in the second game and were unable to defend anything Anna threw at them early on. Anna jumped out to a 10-1 lead and cruised to a 25-14 victory.
“Anna came out like gangbusters there,” Metz said. “After that set, I was pretty squirmy. We can’t allow them to score so many unanswered points. We weren’t really scoring any ourselves — we weren’t earning anything. I think for that set we ended up with maybe five or six kills. We had a handful of attacking and block errors, too.”
Jackson Center regrouped in the third game and was tied 7-7 after Anna senior setter Lexi Wells had a kill. Wells suffered an injury to her left ankle on the next point and missed the rest of the match.
Wells’ injury appeared to deflate Anna, as Jackson Center scored nine of the next 11 points. Deja Wells and Ashley Mullenhour combined on a block to give the Tigers a 20-12 lead, but Anna stormed back.
The Rockets scored six of the next eight to pull within 22-18. A service delay, two ball touched violations and two double contact violations by Jackson Center helped Anna pull within 24-23. Senior middle hitter Emma Meyer then had a kill to tie it 24-24.
“That was just crazy,” Metz said of Anna’s rally. “They did a good job of not letting up and keeping that fire burning, keeping everything moving forward. They just have such a great front line with great attackers.
“… We can’t get comfortable. We did that Tuesday against Fort Loramie and they just kept ticking away. We were just watching the game go by.”
Jackson Center didn’t do that for the last two points.
Senior outside hitter Raquel Kessler had a kill to put the Tigers up by one point. The two squads had a long rally for the final point, as Anna successfully defended three spikes from Kessler. Mullenhour, a sophomore setter/outside hitter, scored the match point on a soft spike to clinch the win.
Mullenhour had an increased role in this week’s matches for the Tigers due to the absence of senior Caroline Frieders, who was held out due to ankle issues.
“She’s battled through all of this,” Metz said of Mullenhour. “Hopefully we’ll be full force in the next match, but we certainly have expanded and elongated different opportunities for athletes. …It’s that bonus that it can be any different person on any given night, and that’s what you want.
“… It hurts (Frieders). She’s not a kid who likes to sit (on the bench). She missed a few games at the beginning of the season last year that caused a little frustration for us not having her around. We’re fortunate we’ve been able to pull through without her, but luckily we’ve got a good balance of athletes. It sure will be nice to have her back out on the court.”
Jackson Center carried its late-set momentum into the fourth game. The Tigers scored four consecutive points to take a 6-2 lead and later pushed it to 12-6. Katie Clark had a kill to put the Tigers up 20-7, and a short bit later, Anna sophomore Mary Landis left the game after sustaining a cut to her face while chasing a ball.
The injury seemed to deflate the Rockets, and Jackson Center went on to win 25-10.
“After that third set, we talked a lot about set No. 2 and how ugly awful we were and how we cannot let that happen again,” Metz said. “We eliminated those crazy, zero-effort plays. I think that little bit of discussion got us focused.”
Kessler finished with 17 kills and 11 digs. Elizabeth Hickey had 11 kills and Sarah Clark had 10. Mullenhour had 36 assists and three aces, Katie Sosby had 22 digs and Deja Wells had seven kills.
Meyer had 21 kills and six total blocks for the Rockets while Macy Wiktorowski had five kills. Elizabeth Michael had 20 digs while Abby Counts had 15 and Lexi Wells had 11. Wells had 23 assists and Landis had 13.
Jackson Center will try to maintain its perfect league record in matches against Botkins and Fairlawn next week. The Tigers will then start their second tour of the league’s other favorites on Sept. 18 at home against Russia.
Anna hosts Marion Local on Saturday in nonconference action and Fort Loramie on Tuesday in SCAL action.
Metz battling cancer
Metz has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer and had her first chemotherapy treatment on Wednesday. She said she felt well after Thursday’s match, though she was a little tired.
Metz says she plans to coach through the rest of the season and wants to “keep the focus on the kids.”
“They’re all really tremendous at all the things they have to deal with,” Metz said. “… They’re like my family. As soon as my family knows something about me, they know. I may look a little different as the season goes on, but they’ll keep fighting.”
Reach Bryant Billing at 937-538-4818, or follow @SidneyOHSports on Twitter and @BryantBillingSDN on Facebook.