Lady Panthers use late drama to sweep Highland

Pekin made a dramatic push in their third set against Highland to preserve their first sweep of the season. Ellie Ledger scored the final point on a decisive kill.

The Pekin Panthers needed a late push in the third set when they traveled up to Highland on September 6. Finding themselves with their backs against the wall, despite being up by two sets, the Panthers rallied with a late push to put down the Wolves and preserve their first sweep of the season.

Highland made things interesting by staying close to Pekin early in the third set, with neither side holding more than a two-point advantage. Pekin made a push midway through the set and when they took a 13-12 lead, the Wolves coach tried to end that rally by calling a timeout. The tactic worked for Highland as they put together a flurry of points, going ahead of Pekin 18-15. From there, Highland and Pekin matched points but the Wolves got to the 20-point mark first, while keeping Pekin a healthy five points behind.

Pekin called a timeout at that point, having felt the momentum fully shift to the home side and their fans getting more animated as each point went on. The Panther fans responded in a similar fashion, urging on their girls to get to the finish line. Pekin closed the deficit behind some key serves by Haley Gambell and some crucial net play. The Wolves called another timeout, with hopes of holding off the Panthers and forcing a fourth set. They were unsuccessful as Gambell and her teammates continued to storm back, lead to more excitement with the Panther faithful.

“I was very impressed with what our girls did in that last set,” Pekin coach Sara Lane said. “Anytime a home team can get that momentum on their home court, that’s really hard to overcome.”

The Panthers got back to the fundamentals late, when it seemed like they would be overtaken in the third set. Slower play and giving themselves chances to get a kill over the net benefitted them most, which led to an intense final point. In the first couple sets, there weren’t many long vollies between the Panthers and Wolves, but the deeper the third set went, the longer the points took to win. A long volley ended in Pekin’s favor as a low pass allowed Ellie Ledger to rise and slam home a kill, giving the Lady Panthers a 26-24 win, and a sweep of Highland.

“We eliminated the errors and we were aggressive serving, used our free balls effectively and hit it right back at them,” Lane said. “That’s the first time we’ve swept anyone this season, it was a big milestone for our team. I have to give some credit to our student section giving us that extra push to go a little bit harder.”

Pekin found itself down only a couple times early in the match, as Highland took a slim lead barely into the opening set. Some mistakes by Pekin benefitted Highland as the Wolves held the 8-4 lead. Pekin responded with a run of their own as Gambell spotted four aces to help her team take a 10-8 lead, forcing Highland to take a timeout. Pekin’s play at the net, including kills and blocks, led to the Lady Panthers taking a 19-15 lead, as they started to pull away late in the opening set. Kylie Davis found some open floor in the back corner and landed a push shot to close it out, giving Pekin the 25-20 win.

“When we have our confidence high, that’s when we pass our best,” Lane said. “Having those good passes where we can run quick shots to Ellie and Allie or fake them out and go outside to Haylee or Kylie. We wanted to mix it up and have them wondering what we’re going to do next.”

Multiple Panthers stood out at various times throughout the match, including Allison Bainbridge, who used her height to get some kills and a block to help Pekin take a 5-0 lead in the second. Highland was able to respond by scoring three straight and then Pekin added another five to the scoreboard with Eden Greiner at the service line. Highland tried to stay within fighting distance, but Pekin proved to be the more dominant team in the set. Ledger served out the final five points to give the Lady Panthers a convincing 25-12 win.

“Finishing out like that does a lot for their confidence,” Lane said. “Even if you win by a slim margin, it still doesn’t give us the momentum that we want but winning convincingly did.”

After playing through a rollercoaster of a third set, the Lady Panthers came out victorious on the road, getting their first sweep of the season. Pekin’s record improved to 9-6, while Highland fell to 1-8.

Gambell had another strong night and led her team with 14 kills, 12 digs and eight aces on 18-18 serving, to go along with 15 assists. Ledger had nine solid kills, including the match-winner, along with eight digs, two blocks, one assist and was 7-7 serving. Erika Coleman led the team with 19 assists and had six digs, one kill and one ace. Davis and Bainbridge combined for 11 more kills and two blocks.

“I want to see us be more consistent in our passing. I was pleased with what we did but we need to work every pass like it’s the ‘do or die pass’ to run our offense,” Lane said. “We have a lot of threats on offense when that works, so we need to utilize that every single time.”

Pekin was back home on September 11 when they hosted Iowa Mennonite, followed by another road game to Lone Tree on September 13.