Rams have no problem with Spartans

MILLBURY – Upper Sandusky’s Molly Owens said she wasn’t even aware of the connection until it was brought up to her after the match. The day she celebrated her Sweet 16th birthday was the same day her Ram volleyball team played its Sweet 16 tournament match.

Owens still has plenty of time to celebrate her personal Sweet 16, but the Rams already have 16 in their rear-view mirror.

Upper Sandusky is now one of Division III’s Elite 8 after dispatching of Marion Pleasant in a regional semifinal at Lake High School 25-15, 25-12, 25-15.

Ram coach Matthew McConnaughey was pleased with the overall performance. The few mishaps his team did have, he said, are correctable by the time his team returns to Lake for its regional championship match 2 p.m. Saturday against Coldwater.

“We played very well. We were aggressive,” McConnaughey said. “We were able to stay at a good tempo and play our kind of game. We had a few mishaps. Two balls dropping with the girls looking at each other, that’s not acceptable. We’ll address that in practice tomorrow.”

A big reason Upper Sandusky does have a tomorrow – actually three big reasons – was the play at the net of Owens, Taylor Graboski and Jessi Holly, each listed at 6-2. The Rams had a tremendous size advantage over the Spartans, who only had one girl listed taller then 5-9 in sophomore Hunter Atherton (6-foot).

Atherton was a focal point of Upper Sandusky’s defense, as the Rams knew she was capable of putting the ball down from any spot.

“That’s what we practiced the day before because we knew (Atherton) did a lot of dumps, so we had to key on her,” Owens said.

Atherton was held to only three kills on the night and no Spartan had more than five.

“There a great team, I wish them all the best,” Pleasant coach Kimberly Atherton said of Upper Sandusky. “They’re fast in their offense. They’re big; you can’t coach height. They got good arms and good ball control. They’re a team to be reckoned with.”

Upper Sandusky’s block was a big factor in Pleasant’s offensive struggles. Ram libero Jenna Holly credited the blocking for making life easier on the back-row players.

“It helps me out so much,” she said. “We’re such a good blocking team and it just works really well for our defense.”

But Holly and the defense shined even when Pleasant got past the block, barely letting a ball hit the floor all night. At one point in the second game, Holly made a diving dig, then saw the ball come back to her. Still laying on the ground, she punched the ball back over the net. Upper Sandusky later won the point of a Graboski block.

“We were really good on defense today, really scrappy,” Jenna Holly said. “That’s what makes us do a lot better.”

“I love our defense,” Owens added. “I can’t believe all the balls they get to and get up. I love it, they’re great, amazing.”

It was definitely frustrating for Atherton seeing the Rams’ defense take away most of the good scoring chances her team had, as her team finished its year with a 13-14 record.

“The momentum was definitely on their side,” she said. “They were picking up balls laying on the floor, punching at a ball and it comes over. Those are the things, when those things are going your way, it’s a good day. And it was definitely a good day for them.”

Offensively, Graboski and Jessi Holly each slammed 15 kills to lead Upper Sandusky. Kalene Johnson put down 10 and Owens chipped in seven.

McConnaughey said at 24-2, he sees his team still getting better, but still room left to improve.

“My girls play good defense, normally pretty good team defense,” McConnaughey said. “This is the right time for them to peak and I feel like we’re improving a little bit each match. I have yet to see their best volleyball So I’m hoping to see that here soon.”

A good time to see that will be Saturday when a trip to state will be on the line against Coldwater. Thursday was a happy birthday for Owens, and a reason to celebrate for the entire team. But the icing on the cake would be to leave Millbury again Saturday will gold medals, and a spot in the Final Four.