Coach Julie Bendzuck and the Avon Eagles volleyball team have established themselves in recent years as one of the premier teams in not just the Southwestern Conference but in the entire state of Ohio. This is in part due to the team's ability to battle through tough opponents and stay both mentally and physically strong during close matches.
Though the scoreboard for Thursday’s straight-set victory at North Olmsted may have made it seem like Avon breezed past the host Eagles, make no mistake, Bendzuck and her team battled in the 25-17, 25-19, 25-11 match.
Avon (7-0, 6-0 SWC) jumped out to a quick lead in the first set. Despite not leading in the match, North Olmsted (3-5, 2-4 SWC) didn’t falter. Led by first-year coach Joe Marita, the Eagles kept the deficit small by quickly answering Avon scoring runs with runs of their own.
Until late in the set, North Olmsted never trailed by more than five points and at the set’s closest, the Eagles trailed by just one point. Following a time-out with Marita’s team down 17-13, Avon outscored them 8-4 to wrap up the set.
Throughout the game, Avon scored evenly offensively. Nine players recorded at least one kill in the first for the Eagles, with junior Emily Gardner leading the way with five. She finished with 14 total kills.
Gardner credited her teammates for helping her have the success she did.
“Our setters are awesome. I love them,” Gardner said. “We have a good connection with them both on and off the court. Our setters did a great job spreading the ball around to everyone which is awesome.”
The second set was more of the same with Avon taking an early lead and North Olmsted playing effective catch-up. Olmsted forced three ties in the second (4-4, 12-12, 13-13) and remained within four points up until 22-18 when Marita called a timeout. After that, three of the next four points gave Avon the set win.
Leading the charge in the first two sets for North Olmsted were setter Natalie and outside hitter Rachel Kennedy. The two seniors connected on eight points in that time (Natalie assisting and Rachel killing).
“They’ve both kind of have helped me set the tone this year that we are going to compete and not back down from any challenge that we face,” Marita said of the duo. “They know the challenges of this conference and they’ve seen it for four years. They’re doing a phenomenal job, both with their play and with their attitudes, leading the team and showing that we’re here to compete.”
In the third and final set, however, the diversity and power of Avon’s offense was on full display and North Olmsted lost the momentum it had built up through the first two sets. Marita was forced to call a quick timeout after falling behind 6-1 and again trailing 17-7 before ultimately losing 25-11.
“I think our passing broke down and we just kind of lost our composure a little bit,” Marita said of the third set. “With us, we’re a scrappy team and we put our heart and soul into it, so when we start breaking down, it kind of turns into a snowball effect for us and we just need to work on being a little mentally tougher and finding ways to stop some of those runs.”
For Bendzuck, her team’s ability to efficiently spread the ball around the court and have offensive weapons throughout the lineup is a great source of pride, and something she thinks will take this team far.
“I think that’s a huge part of our team is being to set anybody in any position on the net,” Bendzuck said. “That’s something we’ve worked really hard with our setters on, is moving that ball offensively and creating situations that are going to create one-on-one opportunities for our hitters because the other team doesn’t know the ball is going to go.”
Bendzuck also credits the current senior leadership on this team for helping Avon survive tough runs that North Olmsted put together in the first two sets. After graduating a six-player senior class, she has a group of five seniors this season. Despite that, Bendzuck acknowledged that the varsity experience for those seniors was minimal coming into this year.
“This is a phenomenal senior class,” Bendzuck said. “They’ve taken these younger players who have never played on a varsity court before under their wing and not just in games. It’s in practice, it’s in social team bonding that we do. It’s kind of nice to see their confidence level rising and that’s resulting in our younger kids playing more confidently.”
After the match, both coaches emphasized that there was a lot to be proud of from this match, but that their teams had to keep improving. Those improvements will have to come quickly for both teams as their upcoming schedules are less-than-kind.
For Avon, the Eagles travel to Olmsted Falls tomorrow before coming back home Tuesday to face Amherst, both at 6:30 p.m.
North Olmsted comes back home for games Thursday at 6:30 p.m. against Avon Lake and Saturday at noon against Trinity. They then head to Berea-Midpark on Tuesday for a 6:30 p.m. first serve against the Titans.
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