Momentum Building: Dragons sweep past Bulldogs, win second straight

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New Palestine's Trinity Oertel celebrates a point during their game against Centerville on Wednesday, Sept. 23, 2020. (Tom Russo | Daily Reporter)

NEW PALESTINE — When the New Palestine volleyball team lost to rival Greenfield-Central earlier this month, the Dragons turned inward.

Swept by their county and Hoosier Heritage Conference foes, 3-0, on Sept. 3, the Dragons challenged themselves to move forward and build from their 4-2 start to the regular season.

Flash forward nearly three weeks, and the Dragons are a new team, filled with steady confidence, overflowing energy and driven by momentum.

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“We’ve realized we can play so much better than the one against Greenfield. After that, in practice, we just kicked it into gear and we haven’t let up from there,” New Palestine senior Kaelyn Armstrong said.

Going 9-1 since facing the Cougars, the Dragons upped their record to 13-3 overall on Wednesday night with a strong 3-0 sweep of visiting Centerville, who dropped to 9-4.

“It’s so great. Just the energy on the court. Everyone is genuinely happy for one another. It is amazing,” Armstrong said.

The Dragons’ excitement stems from success, marked by the team’s seven-game winning streak before losing against HHC opponent Pendleton Heights, 3-1, on Sept. 17.

However, with each setbacks has come a sharper focus, which the Dragons put on display with a 25-16, 25-14, 25-13 rout of the Bulldogs.

“We’ve been playing really well the last few weeks. The girls have been, kind of, in rhythm together, so we’ve been performing well. We’ve been really good at the net,” New Palestine head coach Kelli Gabehart said. “Obviously, every game that we play well gives us more confidence.”

Senior setter Sarah Adams was in her groove against Centerville, registering 20 assists. Her primary attacker, senior Jesi Hall, wasted few opportunities, converting 11 out of 16 kill attempts.

“She definitely knew where to go tonight. Zone five was open, and she could deep tip in zone five, really quick sets, just driving it right through the block,” Gabehart said. “That’s really nice to see. When we get those quick side outs, we’re going to be hard to beat.”

The Dragons ran wire-to-wire during the first set, putting it away behind a 9-4 run with Adam finding Hall for the final point.

Hall teamed with Jada Hausz and Kennedy Stephenson in the second set to spark an 11-3 rally that pushed New Palestine’s lead to 24-13.

Centerville sliced the Dragons’ early five-point lead down to two, but Adam’s sets, the team’s net defense and back row hustle swung the tide back in New Palestine’s favor.

“We talked about how we didn’t really pick up on (Pendleton’s) tendencies quick enough, so we’ve made that more of a focus,” Gabehart said. “Now, we see what the other team is doing, and we react to it much sooner.”

Hausz had six kills on the night, followed by five from Armstrong. Junior libero Grace Myers captained the defense with nine digs. Rachel Popp, a senior, had eight digs and four aces.

Junior Trinity Oertel had five digs, while Adam added five more and Stephenson led the Dragons with four blocks.

“The other teams have some big hitters, but we have a solid offense up at the net, so if we can get our defense firing, I think, we’ll be pretty good,” Armstrong said. “(Grace) gets everything up, too.”

In the third set, the Dragons hit their stride by utilizing their in-game analysis to flip an early 3-1 deficit into a 16-point lead, 24-9.

An Oliva Ellis kill opened their decisive 10-0 run, which put the Dragons ahead 20-6, after Popp’s fourth ace and an error by Centerville.

Centerville rallied with a 4-0 run to make it 24-13, but an error sealed the Dragons’ ninth win in their last 10 matches.

“That match against Pendleton, we were like, ‘We’re in this,’ and we were, but their outside was dominant. We gave them a good game, and we had nothing to hang our heads about,” Gabehart said. “I think we’re playing really well right now.”

At 1-2 in the HHC, the Dragons have matches ahead against HHC opponents Class 4A No. 1 Yorktown on Tuesday, Shelbyville on Oct. 6 and 4A No. 9 Mt. Vernon on Oct. 8.

The program’s meeting with 4A No. 3 New Castle that was originally scheduled for today was postponed due to a potential COVID-19 quarantine issue. A makeup date has not been announced.

In the interim, the Dragons host their own invitational this weekend before three matches next week, including against 2A No. 6 Triton Central on Thursday.

“I think we’re ready for it. We’re going to come out strong, and I think we can do it,” Armstrong said. “It’s a tough stretch (ahead of us), but it’s worth it. It’s our last go-around for the seniors, and we’re having a lot of fun with it.”