Junior Simmons powers SJ-O volleyball sweep
ST. JOSEPH — Before she emerged as a prime-time high school player, Shelby Simmons was, quite simply, a Prime Time player.
The St. Joseph-Ogden volleyball junior spent the offseason refining her skills with the Champaign-based club team by that name.
On Thursday, she played like a poised veteran instead of someone who could count on one hand her varsity matches from 2011. Simmons slammed a match-high 13 kills — to go with five digs, three blocks and two aces — as SJ-O swept Bismarck-Henning 25-18, 25-15.
"We've been underestimated," Simmons said. "We wanted to come out strong."
The win was the second for the Spartans in as many nights. If the expectations for the year were diminished, it's only because SJ-O needs to replace five starters from last year's senior-laden 27-win team.
Fifth-year head coach Abby McDonald — who earned her 100th career triumph against the Blue Devils in the nonconference match — said she never considered Simmons an unheralded player.
"We saw this developing in junior high," she said, "and knew she would be a huge part of our program. She has dressed varsity since she was a freshman and has been a huge part in practice, making it competitive."
Now, it's Simmons' turn to be in the spotlight. She's ready for an expanded role. "I worked hard with my club team," Simmons said, "and hoped it would pay off."
The final tie in Set 1, 14-14, was broken on a block by Simmons. Shortly later, she served an ace as the Spartans' lead was expanded to 18-14. For set point, she teamed up with Kylie Baker for a block. Simmons had seven kills in Set 2.
"One thing our team learned," B-H coach Susan Kentner said, "is when teams hit with authority, like No. 5 (Simmons) did, you need to hit with authority back."
B-H didn't counter the punch.
On the night senior setter Sydney Stone (23 assists) displayed the form she had as a sophomore before her progress was slowed during an injury-plagued junior year, Simmons' kills were not the total story.
"As good as she is on offense," McDonald said, "she's even better on defense (team-high five digs)."
The Spartans also had a breakout performance from senior middle hitter Nicholle Brown. She had four kills, two blocks and an ace.
"She has been behind (All-Area second-teamer) Josey Fruhling, but she was always right there," McDonald said. "This year, she has to be that go-to girl, that powerhouse."
After the loss, B-H is hoping for a repeat of 2011, when the Blue Devils lost their opener to SJ-O, then reeled off 23 straight wins. Kentner said her team has lessons to be learned.
"They are such a competitive team," Kentner said, "and play with a sense of passion. They gave their hitters good opportunities."
Abby Bergman and Jessica Hall had four kills apiece to lead B-H. Maranda Witty and Morgan Gerbsch each had four digs.