Jeremy Grove glanced at the Neuqua Valley bench midway through the third game following one of his 19 kills Wednesday against Marist and shook his shoulders as if to say, “Yeah, everything is going my way tonight.”
But that was the furthest thing from Grove’s mind.
“It was the other way around,” he said. “I was not playing well. I was looking to the bench for some moral support. My passing was terrible in the first set. My hitting was off. I think that was the reason we lost that game.
“Normally, about 50 percent of my balls are kills, but without that, our team was kind of at a loss,” Grove added. “But in the second set, I picked up my passing. I was making contributions. I think (Neuqua Valley libero) Francisco (Comas) picked up his game. I think it was a good comeback.”
Behind 19 kills and 2 aces from Grove, 11 kills from 6-foot-7 middle hitter Jeremy Cardenas and 8 kills from 6-3 junior middle hitter Ryan McGladdery, No. 1-ranked Neuqua Valley (8-0) rallied from a 30-28, 16-15 deficit to defeat Marist 28-30, 25-20, 25-14 in Naperville.
Grove saved his best for the second set, a game which featured eight ties and five lead changes, putting the ball away nine times and adding an ace which gave the Wildcats set point at 24-19.
“I think it's just confidence,” Grove said. “I wasn't very confident in the first set. I got blocked once or twice and I lost a little bit of my momentum. When I'm hitting the ball as hard as I can, I don't think a lot of blocks can stop it. I’m able to hit through them.”
Neuqua Valley coach Erich Mendoza knew his ace was off his game early in the match.
“The funny thing is, he didn’t play well tonight,” Mendoza said. “He’s usually one of our best passers, but his serve-receive game was off. His hitting was off. But he turned it back up in Games 2 and 3, especially his serve-receive. That was a big difference.”
After winning Game 1 on a Neuqua Valley service error and a kill by 6-3 middle hitter Patrick Mahoney, Marist (10-3) jumped out to an 8-5 lead in the second set before Neuqua Valley tied it at 9-9 on a block by 6-7 junior setter Kevin Kauling (43 assists, 4 aces, 5 digs).
Neuqua Valley took its first lead of the second set at 10-9 on a quick hitter by Cardenas, but the RedHawks regained the lead four more times before a service error and another kill by Grove gave the hosts the lead for good at 17-16.
Marist was still within a point at 19-18 on a Mahoney kill, but Grove went back-to-back to extend the lead to 21-18 and the RedHawks never recovered.
“He’s never not ready,” Marist coach Jordan Vidovic said of Grove. “They find him all of the time. He hits from all over the court. Obviously, he has a great connection with that setter. They always seem to know where each other are going to be.
“The impressive thing about (Grove) is that he may get blocked or hit a ball out of bounds, but nothing changes,” the Marist coach added. “He’s still ready to go 1 million percent on the next ball. Our guys can learn from him.”
Game 3 was all Neuqua Valley. A kill by the Wildcats’ Wil Hofner gave the hosts a 13-6 lead and forced a Marist timeout, but the RedHawks could not mount a late charge and Carson Gentry ended the lengthy duel with a kill from the left side.
Mark Borghesi added 6 kills and Comas finished with 11 digs for Neuqua Valley.
Marist was led by 6-2 junior outside hitter Marty Jepsen’s 16 kills and 8 digs. Mahoney added 9 kills and 3 blocks, Ryan Rappold had 4 kills and 3 blocks, and Rocky Mayer contributed 36 assists and 9 digs.
“We had two really good practices under our belt, we felt ready, we just couldn’t sustain our mental focus,” Vidovic said. “It wasn’t physical. We just couldn't sustain the mental focus to be ready for what they're going to do.”
Vidovic called the match a good learning experience for his team.
“Especially when you felt like you had chances,” he said. “It wasn’t like they blew us out in the second game. Then you could just say, ‘OK, regroup, start from zero.’ But when you feel like you had chances, and we did in the second game.
“Then they got the momentum in the third game,” he added. “Sometimes you get it back. But they never gave it back. They stayed aggressive, and they have a couple of great servers on their side who put some pressure on us.”
Jepsen said the RedHawks will use the setback as motivation.
“We’re trying to take each game and get something out of it,” he said. “We’re playing some awesome opponents, which is what we want. We want to be up against the best. This will give us motivation in practice to keep going up and up.”