People love to watch hitters rise above the net and slam down kills. Consider this idea — that old cliché “defense wins championships” rings true in volleyball just like it does in other sports.
The phrase was also one of the first St. Joseph’s coach Sivi Miller spoke to her team after last season’s 3-0 loss to Mt. Carmel in the Division I state title game. With a tall, talented senior class going out the door, Miller knew she had to revamp her smaller and motivated squad.
This was no back-door job. The third-seeded Redstickers will again be march into Kenner’s Pontchartrain Center as one of the top seeds in Division I on Thursday. SJA faces sixth-seed Archbishop Chapelle (22-16) in a quarterfinal set for 6:10 p.m.
While a flashy offense is the ticket for many teams, Miller offers no apologies for her team and its evolution. Instead of height, the Redstickers have relied on defensive might.
“Yes, we lost a lot of talent last year, but every year you have to say goodbye to very good players, and you have to take what you have and you move forward,” Miller said. “Our game plan was to make our defensive game be able to feed our offense.
“Even though our defensive game has been pretty strong all year, the reason is because our blocking game has progressed all season. Our hitters have also done a great job to take our defensive game and bring it into an offensive system.”
The transformation began in preseason practice and is now the team’s mindset. The Redstickers implemented more defensive focused drills to enhance serve-receive, blocking and ball control.
The results — 24 shutouts during the regular season and five players registering more than 200 digs on the season.
Junior libero Melanie Miller leads the team with 613 digs, with sophomore outside hitter/defensive specialist Alexis Toney contributing 452 and junior setter Elise Gasperecz tallying 354.
Add another 341 from defensive specialist junior Megan Welsh and 206 from junior setter Sydney Meaux.
According to the team, the biggest improvement has been from the middle blockers. The unit comprised of sophomores Erin Landry and Fran Okapolbo and juniors Hannah Beene and Elizabeth Landry has compiled 204 blocks this season.
But with such an emphasis on defense comes the aches and pains that come from diving and rolling on the hard wood. The players say it’s just part of the game.
“You learn how to fall gracefully,” Melanie Miller said. “When you do it right, it’s actually fun,” said the unit. “It’s almost a good thing when you have bruises because it shows how hard you work. We call it battle wounds.”
Another pain came in the form of losses, first a 3-2 loss to St. Thomas More on Sept. 9 and 3-0 to Mt. Carmel on Oct. 14.
“I felt like after we lost that game, that just pushed us to work so much harder at practice,” Toney said. “We had played so many big teams that week, just that one loss affected us.”
But the goal, of course, is to end on the highest of highs.
If the old adage about defense holds true, St. Joseph’s will again be one to watch at the LHSAA state tourney.