Rockets get defensive
TOLONO – Check out the Unity volleyball roster and Nichelle Mortenson stands out.
She's the only senior on the team.
Check out the Rockets in pregame warmups and Mortenson still stands out.
She wears a different color uniform than her teammates, symbolic of her role as the libero.
When the game is in progress, Mortenson still is receiving attention. She is getting the passes to Dani Gooch, who sets up hitters such as Lexie Gooch and Bethany Billman to slug away.
"She plays a huge role," said Unity coach Kristy Duncan, whose team won its third consecutive match, handling Tuscola 25-15, 25-19 on Thursday. "We're trying to get her to make an impact as soon as she gets on the court, whether it's with her serving, passing or communication."
After entering high school as a setter, Mortenson was groomed as a defensive specialist and, Duncan said, "has blossomed the last couple of years. Her passing consistency is a lot better."
She was one of six Rockets who served aces in the Okaw Valley Conference match. Unity landed 11 aces (four by Billman) and had two service errors.
"Coach gives us a zone and I try to hit it and keep the team going," Mortenson said.
According to high school rules, liberos are allowed unlimited entry into a match. There are few rotations when Mortenson is not on the floor. She likes it that way.
"It's not that bad," she said. "When you're out for a while, you can get sidetracked.
"Being in and being aware helps me keep my focus."
Mortenson and Billman were the team's defensive leaders against the Warriors, totaling six digs apiece. Mortenson doesn't even think back to the days when she was one of almost a dozen freshman volleyball players at Unity. She is now on a 13-player varsity roster that features seven juniors and five sophomores.
"We've had some leave for dance, some for work and some just stopped (playing)," Duncan said. "We expect a lot out of our kids."
After a slow start (0-4), Unity has progressed quickly. Part of the development is due to the rapid maturation of the sophomores.
"The sophomores are doing a nice job," Duncan said. "It's hard to tell they're sophomores. In fact, it's hard to tell most of the kids don't have a lot of varsity experience."
Billman's jump-serving broke the final tie (7-7) in Game 1. She registered four aces in a five-serve sequence, lifting the Rockets into the lead for good. In Game 2, the final tie (also at 7-7) was broken on a kill by Lexie Gooch, who had a team-high six kills.
Duncan, who didn't consider this to be a rebuilding season, is pleased that Unity (4-5) is closing in on the .500 mark for the first time.
"After watching them over the summer, I saw a lot of athleticism and a lot of potential," she said. "It wasn't a matter of if they would develop into good volleyball players. It was a matter of how long will it take.
"So far, it's happening pretty quickly."
Against Tuscola, Dani Gooch had 11 assists, Billman had five kills and Ana Deters added four. Deters and Kasie Woodworth each served two aces.
For the Warriors, Molly Romine had seven kills and six digs. Rachael Brewer had 15 assists.
"We've worked on our passing for six weeks, and apparently we need to keep drilling it," Tuscola coach Aja Kohlbecker said.
Romine and Jordan Fogerson each had three blocks and the Warriors' total (10), Kohlbecker said, was "10 more than we usually have."
Fogerson and Becca Swaney each had four kills for Tuscola.