By Mike Ashcraft
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. -- An Ohio volleyball team (2-0) starting three freshmen and a sophomore faced its first true test of the 2017 campaign on the season's opening day.
The Bobcats passed, courtesy of a hard-fought 3-2 (25-19, 17-25, 25-20, 22-25, 15-10) triumph over host Samford (1-1) in the Courtyard By Marriott Invitational on Friday (Aug. 25) at Pete Hanna Center.
"I'm glad we got pushed," said fourth-year head coach Deane Webb. "That's what I told the team. If we go and sweep every match, it's a lot of fun, but you don't necessarily get better. I love that we were challenged by a good team. I think they (Samford) played well tonight. And, really, just to have an early-season fifth-set win under our belts just to learn that we can perform under pressure. I love that we got to the fifth set and had our best set. We really controlled the action. We scored 15 points, and 12 of them were on kills. That says a lot of the intention at the end of a game."
Ohio went 2-0 on Friday after sweeping Murray State, 3-0 (25-19, 25-19, 25-23) in the opening match of the tournament.
"In one day, you get to play two NCAA opponents," said Webb of Murray State and Samford, who both qualified for the 2016 NCAA Championship field. "They both were in the tournament last year. We have three freshman starters out there who are playing in some important early-career moments and learning. The moments when you're tested, you learn so much more. It's easy when everything is just going well. You find a lot more about different people's ability to handle those situations and how they handle stress. I think it was a really good team win. We had a number of different people that did some different things for us today and played some different roles than maybe we had anticipated, but they all did a good job and allowed us to earn the win."
The Bobcats won the opening set and built a 2-1 match lead, but the Bulldogs responded with a three-point triumph in the fourth set. Ohio, however, saved its best for last.
Ohio posted a match-best .450 hitting percentage (12 kills-three errors-20 total attacks) in the fifth set en route to a 15-10 victory to clinch the match. Samford built up a 4-1 lead in the early going, but a kill by freshman middle blocker Tia Jimerson (Sugar Hill, Gal.) and another by sophomore outside hitter Lizzie Stephens (Frisco, Texas) helped the Bobcats claw back and even things at four-all. Samford took a 6-5 lead on an Ohio attack error, but the point marked the last lead of the match for the Bulldogs. The Bobcats outscored Samford by a 10-4 count down the final stretch, with a service ace by freshman libero Macy Reihing (Lexington, Ky.) and two kills apiece by Jimerson, Stephens, senior outside hitter Jaime Kosiorek (Chagrin Falls, Ohio) and sophomore middle blocker/outside hitter Sara Januszewski (Oak Creek, Wis.) allowing Ohio to secure a big win.
"Sara is a highly skilled player," said Webb of Januszewski's performance off the bench late in the match. "She has a good energy. She's a kid everybody roots for, and so, when she goes in, I think there's a natural lift with that. In a very, very short amount of time, she got a couple of kills. She didn't block a ball, but she touched four different balls. She's just a really steady player."
Kosiorek opened the year with a second-straight double-double courtesy of a team-high 17 kills to go along with 11 digs. She also finished with two service aces, an assisted block and an assist. Stephens also notched a second-straight double-double with 14 kills and 10 digs. She also added two assisted blocks. Jimerson posted double-digit kills for the first time in her career with 11 and hit .429 for the match. She also led the match with seven total blocks (one solo, six assisted). Januszewski made the most of her opportunities after entering the match for the first time in the fourth set, finishing with two kills in three total attacks. Freshman setter Vera Giacomazzi (San Vendemiano, Italy) logged her first career double-double by dishing out a match-high 45 assists and setting a career high with 12 digs. She also added a kill. Reihing led the match with 15 digs and also had a service ace, a kill and an assist.
"The confidence by Vera," said Jimerson of the key to her success against Samford. "She just said, 'I'm going to give you this ball, so put it down.' There's just a trust between the two of us."
The Bobcats hit .423 in the first set with 12 kills – including four from Jimerson, three from Kosiorek and two apiece from redshirt senior middle blocker Ali Lake (Liberty Township, Ohio) and redshirt junior middle blocker Katie Nelson (Regina, Saskatchewan). Jimerson also added three total blocks (one solo, four assisted) to help Ohio grab a six-point victory. Samford took a 7-6 lead after a kill by junior outside hitter Krista Boesing, but it proved to be the last advantage of the set for the Bulldogs. Ohio scored seven of the next nine points to snatch a 13-9 lead. Two kills by Lake, kills by Kosiorek and Jimerson and a double block by Jimerson and Stephens powered the run. The Bobcats never led by fewer than two points the rest of the way, using a 12-8 stretch that featured two kills apiece by Nelson and Jimerson and a double block by Jimerson and Giacomazzi to close out the set win.
The Bulldogs battled back in the second set to even the match. Samford aced the Bobcats four times and took advantage of four attack errors and four service errors by Ohio. Ohio jumped out to an 8-5 lead after two kills apiece by Kosiorek and Stephens and a double block by Nelson and Giacomazzi. Samford answered with an 8-2 run to take a 13-10 lead, but kills by Stephens and Lake and a double block by Lake and Nelson helped the Bobcats cut the Bulldogs' edge down to one at 14-13. That's as close as Ohio got, though, as Samford closed out the set with an 11-4 run that was powered by two kills by Boesing, a service ace by sophomore outside hitter Kelsi Hobbs and a double block by Boesing and freshman middle blocker Sierra Rayzor. Junior setter Taylor Anderton supplied the Bulldogs with three of their four service aces in the set.
The start of the third set featured back-and-forth action with neither team establishing a lead of greater than two points over the first 15 points of the set. Trailing 8-7, Ohio used two Samford attack errors, three kills by Kosiorek, a double block by Kosiorek and Jimerson, a kill by Jimerson, a service ace by Kosiork and a service error by the Bulldogs to go on a 9-2 run and take a 16-10 lead. Kills by Stephens and Kosiorek and a double block by Stephens and Nelson made it 21-15 in favor of the Bobcats and forced Samford to burn its second timeout. A kill by Stephens and a double block by Jimerson and Lake helped Ohio secure a five-point win and a 2-1 lead in the match. Kosiorek guided the Bobcats' charge with five kills and a service ace while Jimerson assisted on three more blocks.
The beginning of the fourth set mirrored the start of the third, with neither team establishing control over the first 12 points. Samford forced Ohio into a timeout, though, by rattling off three-straight points that included a double block by Rayzor and junior outside hitter Elise Watford and a service ace by Boesing. The Bulldogs built their lead up to five at 18-13, forcing the Bobcats to burn their second timeout. A pair of kills by Rayzor, double blocks by Rayzor and Watford and sophomore middle blocker Shayla Phillip and a service ace by Phillip helped Samford maintain control. The Bobcats rallied, though, using kills by Lake, Kosiorek and Stephens and a double block by Jimerson and Giacomazzi to cut Samford's lead to 20-18 and force the Bulldogs to call timeout. A kill by Kosiorek and a service ace by sophomore libero Meredith Howe (Grand Rapids, Mich.) made it a one-point set at 23-22, but the Bulldogs forced the fifth set courtesy of kills by Boesing and Watford.
Ohio shook off the loss in the fourth, though, with its strong performance in the fifth to seal the match victory.
Boesing led the match with 22 kills and posted a double-double with 10 digs for Samford. She also notched two service aces and an assisted block. Watford also tallied double-digit kills for the Bulldogs with 11. She also led her team with six assisted blocks and also posted a dig. Anderton compiled 44 assists and achieved a double-double with 10 digs. She also tied Hobbs for the match lead with three service aces. Hobbs finished with eight kills, 10 digs and an assist. Rayzor recorded seven kills, five assisted blocks and three digs. She hit .600 for the match. Sophomore defensive specialist/libero Grace Tiesman led Samford with 13 digs and also chipped in three assists.
Ohio closes out its stay at the Courtyard By Marriott Invitational on Saturday (Aug. 26) when it takes on Southeastern Louisiana (0-2) in a 2 p.m. ET matchup. The Lady Lions suffered a pair of losses on the opening day of the tournament, falling to Samford, 3-0 (25-9, 26-24, 25-21), and Murray State 3-0 (25-13, 25-17, 25-21). Saturday's contest will mark the first-ever meeting between Ohio and Southeastern Louisiana.