Broncos survive Thunderbird scare to stay undefeated

Barbara Celar sets the ball against the Thunderbirds. Along with Celar's setting duties she collected four big kills for the Broncos during the five set victory on Wednesday.
Barbara Celar sets the ball against the Thunderbirds. Along with Celar's setting duties she collected four big kills for the Broncos during the five set victory on Wednesday.

NMMI Sports Press

The New Mexico Military Institute Bronco volleyball team kept their perfect record unblemished, but it took a full five sets to down the visiting New Mexico Junior College Thunderbirds, moving 5th-ranked  NMMI to a 13-0 overall record and their first win in conference play.

The brand-new volleyball program at NMJC, under head coach Alexandra Lehockey, walked into a packed gym at the Cahoon Armory gymnasium on Wednesday, with the NMMI Corps of Cadets cramming the north, south and east bleachers, and the fans and faculty filling up the west.

The near-capacity crowd played into the favor of the home Broncos for the first two sets. NMMI's offense and defense was clicking on all cylinders, giving the Institute two relatively easy wins in Sets 1 and 2: 25-16 and 25-18. It looked like it was going to be another quick three-set win for the Broncos, who hadn't yet needed a fifth set to get any of their previous 12 victories.

But any intimidation felt by the T-Birds and their 7-10 overall record, was quickly replaced by encouragement, emboldened by big blocks by NMJC's 6-foot-3 middle Melissa Schroder, and aided by a sputtering Institute offense.

The Thunderbirds went ahead early in Set 3, then survived a late Bronco rally to earn a 25-23 victory.

That momentum continued into the fourth set: the Bronco block attempt seemed to disappear, and every T-Bird attack seemed to find a hole on the NMMI side of the court.  NMJC rode that wave to a 25-18 triumph.

In the fifth set, however, the Broncos rallied, taking the first two points on big hits on the outside from freshman Julia Johnson and then sophomore Barbara Celler. The crowd, and especially Corps of Cadets rallied as well, as NMMI went up 8-3 and then 12-4.

NMJC made one last attempt at the upset, clawing back to 13-9, before NMMI was able to close out the match, 15-10, on kills by sophomore Gabriela Langi and then NMMI's 6-foot-3 freshman Vittoria Price.

NMMI's offensive unit, which looked both brilliant at times at tentative at others, was led in kills by Price with 15. Freshman Alyssa Lukasik was close behind with 13, and Lange hit double-digits as well with 10.

Defensively, soph Hula Crisostomo, last week's NJCAA D1 Defensive Player of the Week, continued her clip to stay in the nation's top-five for digs-per-set, with 34. Fellow sophs Violeta Quintana and Celler had 14 and 12, respectively. On the blocking side, however, the Brocno numbers were less than impressive, with just eight total block assists and zero solos: Langi with four, Price with three, and Lukasik with one.   

"We actually knew that NMJC was going to be a lot better than what we saw on opening weekend when they were here at the NMMI Classic," said head Bronco coach Shelby Forchtner. "They were still struggling to put together a line-up, but we knew that they were going to get better and better as the season went on."

"In the first set, we really did a lot of things well," continued coach Forchtner. "We played good defense, we served really tough, we blocked some balls, and offensively, everyone seemed to be doing pretty good. Then the second set rolls around, we don't block any balls, our serving starts to falter, not in terms of missed serves, but just starting to put balls right onto their platform, not making them move at all. We just made it easier for NMJC as the match went on, instead of making it more difficult – our serving should have gotten tougher, our blocking should have gotten better. And when those two things went downhill, our offense went with it."

Asked about what inspired the turn-around in the fifth set, coach Forchtner's response could be summed up in one word: sophomores.

"In set five, we just asked our sophomores to set up," said coach. "They were ones that really started to struggle in Sets 2, 3 and 4. But we also needed to feed the middles. NMJC wasn't able to stop our middle attack, but our setters kept trying to get everybody involved and distribute the ball equally – but no, if they can't defend something, we should just continue to pound it right there."

And that ability to adjust during a match, or refusal to do so, is what made Wednesday's game against the T-birds so close.

"NMJC went out and made adjustments. They made some blocking adjustments, they made some defensive adjustments, they started making some changes to whom they were serving to on our side. Our players, however, didn't make the adjustments during the game that we were asking them to make. They made adjustments and we didn't. Going into Hutch, I told our kids that that's the word we really need to start off the weekend with: adjust. If we can't adjust, we're really going to struggle this weekend."

Coach Forchtner also knows that with a top-ten NJCAA team ranking, opponents are going to step-up play when competing against the Broncos.

"We have a target on our back with the No. 5 national ranking," said Forchtner. "Everyone wants to beat a nationally-ranked team. I think our team can handle that load, but we need to understand that with such a ranking, there's not going to be any easy games."

Next up for the NMMI squad will be the Blue Dragon Invitational, held in Hutchinson, Kansas. Hutchinson Community College, commonly shortened to just 'Hutch', will also be the site of this year's NJCAA D1 Women's Volleyball National Championships. The Broncos will take on several quality programs in Hutch on Friday and Saturday (Sept. 20-21) including the nation's 14th-ranked team, Mineral Area College.