Photo by Jeff Vorva
Mother McAuley hitting star Charley Niego (black shorts) joins the Mighty Macs’ fans in the postgame celebration of Tuesday’s 25-20, 25-17 win over Marist, which was ranked third in the country by USA Today/AVCA.
When Central Michigan-bound Savannah Thompson blasted a spike off the face of Mother McAuley sophomore defensive specialist Grace Niego, her big sister, Charley, had only one thing to say.
Indeed, the ball came up off Grace’s left cheekbone, Charley eventually ending the point with one of her nine kills. And, amid a five-point, second-set run, McAuley was well on its way to a surprisingly easy 25-20, 25-17 win Tuesday over Marist in front of an estimated 2,000 fans in the packed Mighty Macs gym.
“That’s unusual,” Grace, who finished with seven digs, said of her facial save. “All I thought was, ‘Is it up?’
“It feels good when Charley says encouraging things to me. She’s been my role model.”
Grace was one of four sophomores to show well in a match with a RedHawks team that entered as the top-ranked team in the state in at least one poll, and No. 3 or 7 in the nation, depending on who you ask.
Amia Owolabi, a left-handed right-side hitter, finished with five kills, including a run-stifling rip to make it 22-16 after Marist rallied from nine points down to within five in the second set. Lexi Warfield served for five points in the second set. Alena Pedroza had five kills.
“I didn’t know how it was going to go,” McAuley coach Jen DeJarld said. “I have four sophomores I expect big things from, but I didn’t know if they were going to be able to handle the pressure of McAuley/Marist — the crowd, the noise. All four were so solid.”
Marist (9-1), which has now lost seven straight to the Mighty Macs (9-1), played from behind almost the entire night, last leading at 3-2 in the first set.
“Mentally, we were a lot stronger,” said Charley Niego, who added 14 digs to go with her team-high kill total. “We didn’t let the fans or anything get in our heads.”
Maggie Meyer, who led Marist with 10 kills and 12 digs, insisted the crowd didn’t get in the RedHawks’ heads so much as their ears.
“I thought we needed to deal better with the crowd,” she said. “We couldn’t communicate as well with each other as we normally do, so we struggled a bit.”
Marist coach Jordan Vidovic suggested it was more than a bit — especially after seeing his team get off to a 9-0 start that included an upset of then top-ranked Minooka.
“Some of the stuff we’ve done real well just wasn’t there,” he said. “We didn’t get comfortable. We didn’t get settled.
“We didn’t mix it up enough on offense. We have a really dynamic offense and we didn’t use it. We just weren’t on our game.”
Did he think any of that owed to any alleged McAuley mystique?
“I really don’t,” he said. “It comes down to what we put on the court. They’re not the only big team we play. This was just a nice test for us early in the season.”
Grace Green added 10 digs for Marist and setter Molly Murphy had 22 assists. McAuley got 18 digs from Casey Macander and 23 assists and nine digs from Nancy Kane.
McAuley’s uptick came after a weekend of lineup juggling at the Louisville (Ky.) Invitational, where the Macs went 4-1 and won the Silver Championship. The Macs’ lone loss came to Mount Notre Dame (Ohio).
“They had a lot of offensive weapons that we had a hard time containing,” DeJarld said. “Overall, I was happy with the way we competed. We’re getting better every day and we are working hard to improve on the deficiencies that were exposed when we played such high-caliber competition.”
One such deficiency was Owolabi’s hitting.
“I haven’t had a lefty over there in a while,” DeJarld said. “She’d been having a hard time with her timing, but it came together tonight.”
Thanks to Owolabi grabbing Kane for some extra pre-game work.
“I pulled Nancy over for some extra time with her,” Owolabi said. “Today I showed Coach DeJarld what I can do — the team saw it, too.”