By Walter Villa
CHICAGO, Ill. – Liberated from the pressure of an undefeated season, Assumption (Louisville, Ky.) has been delivering punishment to every opponent it has faced the past month.
On Saturday, it was the No. 3 team in the nation that got in their way.
No. 5 Assumption smashed Berkeley Prep (Tampa, Fla.) 25-17, 25-21 to win the 24-team Asics Challenge, which featured nine teams ranked in the POWERADE FAB 50.
It is the 11th time in the past 16 years that the Rockets have won the Asics Challenge.
It is also the second straight elite tournament the No. 5 Rockets (32-1) have swept this season; the first was the 48-team Durango Fall Classic Sept. 16-17 in Las Vegas, Nev.
All of this has happened after the Rockets lost to No. 46 Chattahoochee (Johns Creek, Ga.), in three sets on Sept. 10.
“We’ve been playing great since then,” said Assumption senior Taylor Long, a 5-10 outside hitter. “We’ve been playing free.”
It wasn’t quite free for No. 3 Berkeley (16-2) this week. The Bucs’ two losses – they also fell to No. 35 Mother McAuley (Chicago, Ill.) on Thursday – will likely cost them in the rankings.
Berkeley coach Randy Dagostino said his team’s 14 service errors – about a dozen more than usual – were the biggest factor in the loss to McAuley.
“I’m going to take the blame for that,” Dagostino said. “I had been telling our girls to serve aggressively.
“But look, finishing undefeated has never been a goal of mine. I’ve never gone undefeated in 28 years of coaching. If undefeated was my goal, I’d never leave Florida.”
Since the loss to McAuley, Berkeley made sure to get its serves in, allowing setter Mackenzie Dagostino, a Maryland recruit, to distribute to Stanford commit Jordan Burgess and rising 5-11 sophomore star Sidney Brown.
That strategy worked well until they faced Assumption, which played stellar defense to win back the title it lost in 2010.
“We’re not very large on the outside, but I was very impressed with our defense,” Assumption coach Ron Kordes said. “We touched a lot of balls on (Burgess). We slowed her balls down. If you don’t, you are only going to dig her so much.”
Kordes said 6-3 junior Taylor Paulson was an active blocker, and the coach also praised his team’s depth. He used 11 players on Saturday, which is about his norm with this team.
Not lost in all the glory was the back-row specialists, 5-4 senior Chelsea Bowles and 5-8 juniors London Ackerman and Kaelin Grimes.
No MVP was picked for the tournament, but more than a couple people came away mighty impressed with Bowles.
“Chelsea was on it,” Long said. “She was here, she was there, she was everywhere.
“We don’t come across big hitters like (Burgess) very often. But when we do, Chelsea, London and Kaelin always step up.”
Senior setter Katie George, the only Assumption standout who made the six-player all-tournament team, said the Rockets’ back row frustrated Burgess, who had no kills in the first set before nailing nine in the second.
“As a hitter, you become impatient when you don’t get kills right off the bat,” said George, who has recovered from the blood clots she suffered this past summer and played for the first time this weekend without her protective helmet. “Our defense was outstanding.”
Paulson also spoke in glowing terms of the Rockets’ defense and seemed to be somewhat amazed by how her team thwarted some high-caliber players.
“We shut down their outside hitters, and they are not used to that,” Paulson said. “I mean, look at them – Stanford (Burgess) … come on!”
Coming on is exactly what the Rockets have been doing since losing to Chattahoochee. No coach ever wants to lose a match, but Kordes said he is happy his girls no longer have that stress.
“It’s real difficult to stay undefeated,” he said. “We’ve done it a couple times, but the pressure on the girls is terrible, monumental. Now we can just play.”