La PORTE — In a volleyball matchup of powerful front lines like La Porte and New Prairie, sound defense is imperative.

When that side of the court isn’t up to par, it’s nearly impossible to take down a talented team as the Cougars found out in a 25-22, 25-23 loss to the Slicers in the finals of Saturday’s La Porte tournament.

On the very first point of the title game, La Porte’s Paige Conklin hit a fairly routine serve to the right side of the court. An errant return shot the ball off to the side, and it looked like New Prairie’s defensive woes would continue.

“Defense first,” Staus yelled at her team. “Then you can hit the ball.”

Elise Swistek and Katie Hancock took took that to heart, taking it upon themselves to set a trend of hustling on defense to energize the team. They both dug out some hard-hit balls, and Hancock came up with key blocks in situations early in the first game.

But two girls can only do so much, and a powerful group of La Porte hitters never let up. After looking visibly frustrated following a few tough points in a row, the Slicers took advantage of some shoddy defense to create a large gap between themselves and the Cougars and never looked back.

The combination of Aniya Kennedy, Lexi Joyner and Cheyanne Seymour were too much to handle for a New Prairie defense that was already struggling against a Highland team with far fewer weapons.

Many don’t think about volleyball as a game dictated by defense like football or baseball. On the surface, it seems like an offensive game with lots of hard-hit balls and action. And while that may be true, great offense cannot get set up unless a great return starts off the possession. 

The Cougars lacked consistent returns, resulting in a lackluster offensive performance because of it. New Prairie’s big three are a tough matchup for any opponent, but if they can’t consistently get clean balls to hit close to the net, the offense won’t have quite the same potency.

“I actually think we played our best game against (La Porte),” Staus said. “We didn’t play really well defensively before, but I feel like we stepped it up then. It’s just a matter of a few errors that make the difference in a close game like this. I always preach defense first to them, and it’s especially important when we’re playing a team as tall as La Porte.”

While a few errors defensively led to New Prairie’s demise, it’s not like the Slicers were handed this match. The setters did a fantastic job all afternoon of placing balls in the best places for their hitters to send scorching spikes over the net, and the girls on the front line made key blocks to thwart any momentum the Cougars may have had.

Before the semifinals, Swistek was leaping above the net in warmups to forcibly spike the ball at a tough downward angle, Robinson was placing shot after shot on the line and Robinson hit one ball so hard at a Highland defender that it made her look around in dismay and mouth, “Wow.”

Still, the Cougars were struggling against a seemingly-inferior Trojans team, mainly due to sloppy bumps on returns, resulting in balls far away from the net. Shoddy defense doesn’t just result in far fewer spike attempts, it also gives the opposition easier balls to return, making its offense much easier to run. New Prairie’s inability to set up its own front line gave Highland a bevy of clean looks on offense, resulting in more spikes, and so on, and so forth. 

In the second game, a clearly-bugged Staus took a couple steps to the court and echoed, “Come on, ladies. Play some defense!”

The Cougars had to figure out their defense if they were to avoid getting upset by the Trojans and advance to the finals against La Porte, which rolled 25-10, 25-10, in its semi. 

They weren’t about to get upset here in their rivals’ gym, and all of a sudden, they turned it on. Hancock slid and dove all over the gym to dig out tough balls, Swistek smashed spikes and placed others perfectly with a smooth touch for points, and the Cougars escaped the third game 15-13 to move on to the championship.

New Prairie got away with some subpar play against Highland, but that wasn’t going to fly; not against a La Porte team with just as much fire-power as the Cougars.

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