Dakota’s volleyball team had to scramble ahead of their Division 1 quarterfinal game against Dearborn Divine Child on Tuesday at SC4 Fieldhouse in Port Huron.
A few hours before the game, the Cougars discovered that libero Gabby Jones was ill and couldn’t play.
“We’re very strong defensively, even when Gabby’s gone,” coach Neil Rucinski said after Dakota swept the Falcons 25-21, 25-22, 25-20 to advance to the semifinal game with Ann Arbor Skyline Thursday at 6:30 a.m. pm at Kellogg Arena in Battle Creek. “I texted Zoey (Mertz) to get her another shirt. We trust her and the girls believe each other.
Mertz handled the libero position perfectly and finished with a team-best 13 digs and a stellar 2.6 serve-receive rating.
“I’ve played the libero before, but I never thought I’d play it in the quarterfinals or in a big game like this,” Mertz said. “It wasn’t that nerve-wracking. I was just happy that my team trusted me to be a libero in this match.
“I was more on the pitch tonight. I had to bring more energy. I had to keep pushing until the end. I’m grateful that I was able to do that.
Rucinski and his team tried to make the transition as seamless as possible for Mertz.
“Usually Zoey plays in the middle or at left-back and we tried to keep her in those comfortable positions so we could maintain the flow,” Rucinski said. “When we got the call that we wouldn’t have Gabby tonight, we just tried to keep it familiar and comfortable.
“We are working on many worst-case scenarios in practice. I wish we had it but we had other people step in. We let Alyssa Bommartio play all six rotations. We moved Skylar Myers to a different place. It usually starts with one of our DS (defensive specialist). They moved well. The communication was there. There was a bit of a displacement feel, yes, but it was good to see girls stepping in. We don’t worry about what we can’t control. We focused on what we could control to get the final four.
Although Dakota won all three sets, the Falcons provided some good competition.
“We weren’t going to give them an easy job,” Divine Child coach Liz Gazley said. “We had good service. We had very good shots for some points. If we had continued like this, we might have had it. I can’t be mad at anything we did tonight. I would have liked to win, but I’m happy with our girls. I’m happy that we made it this far and won our regional. Our goal is always to be state champions, but regional championships are fine. We move up a notch every year. »
In each of the past two games, the Falcons have had overtime runs led by Dakota. Divine Child scored nine straight points in the second set to turn a 20-12 deficit into a 21-20 lead, but the Cougars responded with four straight points, including two kills by Olivia Gardner. It was the same story in the third set. The Falcons trailed 19-9 but cut the lead to 21-18 before Dakota closed things out with a Bella Austin kill.
“It wasn’t our cleanest game,” Rucinski said. “We missed a lot of serves and made unforced errors. Our attackers were aggressive. Their number 11 (Riley Tople) had a great game blocking us. We have to work on our vision because it will become more difficult in the last four.
Gardner and Emma Thamarus each had 11 wins for Dakota. Thamarus’ hit percentage was 0.292. Gardner and Erin Madigan had two blocks each.
“They’ve got big girls and they’re good hitters,” Gazley said. “We had to make sure our blocks got up and we put the ball down where they weren’t.”
Dakota, who lost just one game in the state tournament, was confident he could reach Battle Creek.
“I knew we could go this far, but it’s surreal right now,” Mertz said.