With a line-up heavy with talented sophomores, Rockford Lutheran looked similar to the 2012 Oregon volleyball team.
In a 2A regional final on Halloween, those underclassmen were no match for a bunch of Lady Hawks a year older and wiser.
Winning its ninth regional in 11 years, Oregon defeated Lutheran 25-20 and 25-22. Earlier in the season, the two teams split matches.
“When we came out, we wanted to feel like we were in control,” first-year Oregon coach Faith Watson said. “That’s when we excel. We never felt frantic, even when they went on a couple runs.”
Lutheran (20-11) got off to a 5-2 lead in game one, but junior Emy Wright had a kill and a block to make it 5-5. Another junior, Hailey Long had a slick-looking diagonal kill to tie it again at 7-7 and Wright scored on consecutive aces for a 9-7.
The other junior that had a hand in seemingly every scoring play for Oregon (28-9-1) was Delaney Mahoney. Mahoney, who played club volleyball for Lutheran coach Kyle Milborn, had 22 assists.
Milborn could readily see the advantage Oregon had with the one-year difference between players.
“Oregon was more aggressive than last year,” Milborn said.
“I was very impressed with the way Lutheran played for a bunch of sophomores and a freshman,” Watson said. “We knew they wouldn’t be a rollover.”
Senior Shannon Cullen made her presence felt in the net and gave Oregon a 14-11 lead on an offense point and a defensive block right afterwards.
The Lady Hawks expanded that to a 24-17 lead on their way to a win in the first game.
Mahoney really started to get into the groove in the second game, artfully working the set-up. It was sophomore Sommer Rhea staking Oregon to an early 4-0 lead on two of her six kills.
“After having her in my club, I knew Delaney would be a threat,” Milborn said.
“Delaney has matured the last couple weeks and knows who’s going to get the kills,” Watson said. “It feels like the girls don’t need me much and that’s a good thing.”
The final six scores of the game for Oregon were especially gratifying, as all were the result of skilled offensive teamwork.
Rhea made it 20-16 by dinking a shot into the middle of the court after one of the longest volleys of the night. Wright then had two power slams and Hailey Long followed up with a tip shot that caught Lutheran off guard.
“We didn’t execute our game plan of being a defensive first team on outside and right-side blocking,” Milborn said.
Rhea and Cullen closed the game out with kills on perfect-placed assists from Mahoney.
“We exploited their weakness,” Watson said. “We tried to stay away from their center (5-foot-11 Katie Dolan) and limit their libero (Hailey Reese) to minimum digs. We did a fantastic job on that. I can’t say enough positive things about the girls.”
Wright finished with 10 kills, four aces and eight digs to lead Oregon. Rhea had six kills and nine digs, while Long had five kills and seven digs and Cullen four kills to go along with a strong defensive presence.