CEDAR LAKE — During warm-ups, it was evident how locked in New Prairie was for its 3-0 (25-8, 25-18, 25-23) Class 3A Hanover Central Regional final victory over West Lafayette on Saturday night.
As the Red Devils migrated toward the back of the gym following their warm-ups, the Cougars made their way to center court. As per usual with a team as close as them, they were loose and having fun with each other. But there was a different, more-focused energy they exuded as well.
The first thing New Prairie did in warm-ups was practice its setting and hitting. Head coach Jordan Staus hit a ball over to her setter, senior Shaye Tolch, who propped one up for senior captain Katie Hancock. Hancock is typically the vocal leader of the team. But after pounding two spikes onto the hardwood floor, she got back in line with a determined look on her face.
"We really wanted to win tonight," Hancock said. "We just really love playing together and we don't want it to end. Now that we won regionals, we want to make it to state."
Following Hancock in the warm-up lines was junior outside hitter Elise Swistek. The Valparaiso commit just recently won the Northern Indiana Conference's Most Valuable Player award, and those in attendance saw why. She spiked one during warm-ups that one-hopped to a line of West Lafayette players practicing their digs.
One player's jaw dropped, mouthing, "Oh my God," in disbelief. Others, including the Red Devils' student section, looked at one another laughing in awe of how powerful Swistek's spikes are.
The show didn't stop there though. Swistek and the rest of the Cougars came out firing from the get-go, going on an impressive 18-2 run to take the first set by a staggering 17 points. The Northern Indiana Conference MVP had 16 kills on the night, propelling her team to victory.
"We knew how good they were," Swistek said. "So we had to start off hard first."
While New Prairie cruised to an easy victory in the first set, Staus and her team knew that wasn't indicative of how the rest of the match was going to be. West Lafayette has impressive talent across the board, from a stingy middle, to a lethal server and everything in between.
Because of the talent the Red Devils possess, the Cougars found themselves in a tightly-contested second set. It was time for them to overcome a bit of adversity and show their resilience.
In a back-and-forth second set that saw nine ties and four lead changes, New Prairie went on a run when it needed it the most with things all knotted up at 16 points apiece. Tenacious defense and quality serving led to a 5-0 run to put the Cougars up 21-16. The two traded points on the next two possessions, but New Prairie closed out the set on a decisive 3-0 run, giving it a commanding two-set lead.
The third set provided more drama for the Cougars to overcome. Down 19-17, they needed to get things going in a hurry. They crawled their way back into it, tying things up at 21. West Lafayette spiked one towards the line, looking line an eventual point. But Swistek stuck her hand out to miraculously save it. Senior Logan Forrester then dove to keep it in play, and Swistek punched her right hand at the ball, sending it over the net and onto the back line to give her team the lead, and the momentum to win the set.
"We couldn't just lay down and die," Hancock said. "We knew in the first set we had it, and we got relaxed after that. We fell down because of it, but we focused in and fought back the next two sets to win them."
The sweep gave Staus her second regional title and semistate appearance in as many years as head coach.
"Now I've got some high expectations, huh?" she joked. "I've got a great group of kids though. They work hard, they listen to what I tell them and they believe in what I tell them and they're willing to work for it. They love playing with each other, and that's one of the main things. They don't want to have this be the last game to be together on the floor."
She and her players alike give credit to a coaching style that is brutally honest and holds high expectations from her players. But more than anything, the closeness of this team is what makes it so special.
Whether it be the girls' Chipotle runs or bus rides belting out Tim McGraw lyrics, they share a special bond. They don't want to stop playing together, and the best way to do that, simply, is just keep winning.
Class 3A Hanover Central Regional
New Prairie 25-25-25, West Lafayette 8-18-23
Elise Swistek had 16 kills.