PORTAGE — Portage volleyball coach Lauren Cordwell dubbed her team the “comeback kids” after several early-season performances where the Mustangs were forced to a win after falling behind at one point given of the game.
Facing back-to-back Heritage Conference champion Homer-Center, the Mustangs again had to go the extra mile in Wednesday’s District 6 Class 1A semifinals after the Wildcats put Portage down 2-0. .
The Mustangs took the third set, but a combined 38-game offensive performance from Meegan Williams and Homer-Center’s Ashlyn Kerr helped the Wildcats to a 3-1 victory by the scores of 25-14, 25-10, 23-25 and 25.-17.
“I think they settled in and played really hard,” Cordwell said.
“They knew they had to leave everything there tonight and Homer-Center was going to be tough. They dug deep and kept pushing. It didn’t work our way, but I really couldn’t fault the effort tonight.
Homer-Center became the biggest blemish on Portage’s schedule, as the loss marked the Mustangs’ third 17-4 loss to the Wildcats this season. The first came in a 3-0 sweep on Sept. 6 before the Wildcats edged the Mustangs 2-0 in the Legacy Conference semifinals last week.
First-year coach Beth Cutshall said defense was key to the 16-3 victory for the Wildcats, which advanced to the district championship for the second time in three years.
Homer-Center will face West Branch, undefeated 3-0 over Bishop McCort Catholic, in the playoffs for the third consecutive season.
“As long as we get to the balls, we’re going to be successful,” Cutshall said. “We have a lot of big girls in the front row, as well as a lot of experience there. We work a lot on our blockage in training, and that helps a lot.
Homer-Center’s front three — Molly Cosmack, Ali Schmidt and Macy Sardone — gave Portage consistent adjustments at net, recording multiple blocks and giving the Mustangs little scoring chances.
This propelled the Wildcats to big point strings in the first two sets. Homer-Center, after leading 9-8 in the first period, scored 15 of the next 17 goals to go ahead in the game.
The Wildcats then closed Set 2 with 10 straight points after leading 15-10.
“I don’t think it was nervous tonight,” Cordwell said. “We just got into an early rut. We came back all year, but we just have a mental block against Homer. We just got stuck.
The Mustangs raced themselves to earn their Set 3 win. Cordwell called a timeout after the Wildcats built a 21-15 advantage. Portage came out of the break and outshot Homer-Center 10-2 to get the count.
Homer-Center then turned to Williams and Kerr in the fourth set to close out the match, with Williams recording eight of his 23 decision wins in the frame.
Kerr finished with 15, while Alaina Fabian tallied 11.
“We trust our outside hitters a lot,” Cutshall said of Williams and Kerr. “I’ve said all year that they’re probably the two best hitters in the conference. They were definitely hot tonight so we fed hot hands.
Cordwell praised the Mustangs, who won the Heritage Conference East Division in their first season as a conference member.
Keira Sossong, Lexi Slanoc and Sydney Castel, the team’s three seniors, led Portage to its first semifinal appearance after the Mustangs won just five games in their debut campaign in 2019.
Sossong, the only Portage player to hit 1,000 shots, recorded 25 in her last game.
“It’s definitely been a great season,” Cordwell said. “They pushed so hard all year and deserved everything they achieved. I can’t say enough about this team. We have 10 experienced juniors coming back next year, so we are already very excited for next fall.