(written, shot, edited and narrated for Somerville Patch)
The Somerville Highlanders served up 24 aces Friday at Madison Park Technical Vocational High School in Roxbury, sweeping the Cardinals in three games in the opening round of the MIAA state tournament.
The Highlanders will travel to the top-seeded 17-1 Newton North Tigers Tuesday night for the MIAA Central-East Division 1 Quarter Finals.
With a week off between games, Somerville coach Steven Walker and the Highlanders used the extra practice time to focus on improved serving.
“We need to serve well if we want anything else to work,” Walker said. “Offense, defense, anything. Our play, our momentum starts with our serving.”
Walker said the team specifically worked on targeting and location, and the extra work paid off. The Highlanders won 25 points – one entire game – via aces or unreturned serves.
Perhaps no Highlander benefited more than senior Zhanea Nicholson, who earned her team 11 points on serving alone, plus two more at the net on a kill and a tip.
“I just found a whole new way to serve,” Nicholson. “Before I was float-serving. I found something new at practice, and I just stuck with it, and it worked.”
Nicholson said her new technique involved tossing the ball lower and swinging through much faster.
Nicholson’s consistent and aggressive serves helped the Highlanders take control of all three games.
With Somerville down 7-5 in Game 1, Nicholson served three aces in four points to take a 9-7 lead. Another ace put the Highlanders up 23-17 in a game they won 25-21.
In Game 2, with the Highlanders up just 16-14, Nicholson put seven straight serves in play. Three went for aces, and the Highlanders scored on all seven to take a 23-14 lead. They won the second game 25-15.
And in Game 3, with the Highlanders up 9-7, Nicholson fired off another three-ace streak as part of a 7-0 run the Cardinals never recovered from.
The Cardinals struggled heavily with the Highlanders’ aggressive serving, rarely passing accurately enough to set up a spike opportunity. The Cardinals managed just five kills across the three games, never leading by more than three points.
“We didn’t move our feet,” Madison Park coach Gladys PerezByrd said. “We weren’t calling. I think they might have been a little nervous to begin with.”
Nicholson wasn’t the only Highlander to dominate at the service line. Senior Nicole Genard recorded five aces, including a three-ace streak of her own in the second game that turned a 7-6 deficit into a 9-7 lead.
Senior setter Brittany Cassidy served four aces, including two in a four-point mini-run that put the Highlanders up 22-13 in Game 3.
When the Highlanders actually had to play balls, strong back-row communication helped set up spiking opportunities for Genard and senior Lorenza Etienne. Both outside hitters scored six points off kills, and Genard also tipped one over the block for a point early in Game 3.
“We just wanted to play our best, and kind of make a point that we made it to States and we can go farther,” Nicholson said. “We’re not going to get kicked out first game.”
Facing the daunting Tigers on Tuesday, Walker said the key was improved passing.
“Without it, we just kind of become a very one-dimensional team,” he said. “If we can get passing going, I feel pretty confident.”