We have a ways to go before we learn whether Metea Valley can indeed defend its Upstate Eight Conference Valley title, but it took just one match this season to make it clear the Mustangs' path to a repeat will not be an easy one.
The Mustangs were a perfect 6-0 in the Valley in 2013 but dropped Tuesday's league opener 28-26, 25-15 at Neuqua Valley. The Wildcats almost let the opener slip away but used a strong all-around game to sweep their rivals.
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Seniors Kaelan Haag and Emily Krachenfels combined for 13 kills, including the match clincher that saw Haag blast the ball through a pair of Mustangs defenders.
"We definitely played together tonight. Everyone did a great job," said Krachenfels, who sets and plays the right side. "We were really pumped for this. We all wanted to prove that we could do this."
After competing at the rugged Benet Invite last weekend, the Wildcats took a 2-3 mark into the conference opener but were sharp from the start. After the game was tied five times earlier, the hosts seemed to take control following a kill by Alexis Douglas that put Neuqua on top 24-19.
But Metea (2-5, 0-1) roared back, fending off 5 game points to draw even and then took a 25-24 lead as Alyysa Jepson and Maggie Petersen combined for a block kill.
The Wildcats recovered, however, to take the opener and then used a clean second set to complete the sweep.
"I have to give credit to Metea. They were fighters," Wildcats coach Kelly Simon said. "When they were in a hole they never let up. I thought they played some of their best ball when they were in that tight situation."
But the hosts played solid ball throughout the night, with Haag leading a balanced attack with 7 kills and libero Nora Meehan pacing a strong defense with 12 digs.
Simon knows the importance of the game in terms of both the Upstate Eight race as well as the rivalry between the programs.
"We have great respect for them and the coaching staff," she said. "Three of their coaches used to be coaches here and one just recently made the move. We have tremendous camaraderie between the two programs and with the kids and with the coaches -- just huge respect. And that's a huge win for us for that reason too."
The Mustangs all-area hitter Lexie Lobdell had a match-high 9 kills and also 6 digs and a pair of aces, but Tuesday belonged to the Wildcats.
"Neuqua played great," Mustangs coach Dave Macdonald said. "It's a fun little rivalry between the three Valley schools. These girls don't give up. They fight to the last point. After we came back I thought we had it … it was just errors on our part and then we kinda carried that over and lost a bit of energy and our swagger going into that second set. But you know I never felt out of it."