SERENA – When a senior class devotes all its skill, all its strength, all its focus on making its school’s senior night a success, good things usually happen.
But when you have the underclassmen contribute to that effort the way Serena junior Paige Sexton did against Gardner-South Wilmington on Wednesday night, that’s almost a guarantee.
Sexton slammed home a whopping 17 kills to aid other stellar performances from Katie Baker, Lauren McNelis and five other seniors to make the celebration a happy one for the Huskers with a 25-23, 25-18 victory over the Panthers.
A tough GSW club, only 12-16 but strengthened from battles with many Class 2A and 3A schools on its schedule, put up a fight with its defense, bringing spike after spike back up and over. However, the Huskers (16-7) stayed cool and showed enough outstanding defense of their own throughout that it offset that play, so much so that the huge night drilling the ball by Sexton made the win possible.
“I knew this would be a challenge and it was, but we started all seniors tonight and they all did a great job for themselves in their final home game.”— Serena coach Chris Bjork after his team's two-set senior night win over Gardner-South Wilmington
“Paige had some great hits, but [GSW] was scrappy on their side, got a lot of our hits back up and sent them back over,” Serena coach Chris Bjork said, “but our girls were ready. We’ve been preaching defense all year over offense and tonight we showed a little bit of that. Nothing touches the ground without us getting a touch on it first.
“I knew this would be a challenge, and it was, but we started all seniors tonight and they all did a great job for themselves in their final home game.”
The emotion of the prematch ceremonies carried into the action, helping lift the Huskers to leads of 7-3, 13-10 and 17-11 – the latter on a kill and then a block/tip by Sexton - before the Panthers jumped back in it in a big way. A tipping error and seven straight service points by GSW’s Katelyn Farris actually gave the visitors a one-point edge.
But that’s where Baker stepped up. With her team down 20-19, the senior nimbly made her second foot save of the year to extend the longest rally of the night. Though it didn’t get the point, the play switched the momentum to Serena, who came back from a 23-21 deficit to tie it on consecutive kills by McNelis. Baker then make the clincher, driving a shoot from the right front corner of the Huskers side to the left rear corner of the Panthers’ for the go-ahead point and one of her eight kills on the night. A GSW hitting error then finished the set.
“Katie is definitely one of the smartest players I’ve ever coached,” Bjork said. “She’s constantly asking the bench what’s open on the floor, she takes that knowledge and uses it so she always seems to know when to dump the ball, when to push to the corners to get us out of trouble.”
The second game was initially the reversal of the first with three points by Addison Fair giving GSW a 13-10 advantage before Serena bounced back to tie it at 17 on a sideout hitting error.
Again, Baker came through big, going to the service line and firing off five consecutive points for a 22-17 lead. Later, Sexton rang up the final two points on her final kill and an Abigail Johnson tip of an overpass for match point.
“We did a great job defensively, despite missing our leading blocker (Colby Grieff) this week,” GSW coach Amber Eisha said. “I’ll sure take us playing like this when we don’t have all our starters, especially against a team that plays like that, that has hitters like that. Our girls kept hitting the floor and communicating, bringing a lot of things up after we’ve had a rough patch the last few weeks of doing that.
“We’ve had losses recently because of errors and lack of communication, but not tonight. This was like a whole team I’m seeing now and it gives me a good feeling going into the regional next week.”