Dominant Defense: Lions hold off Free State in volleyball City Showdown

Lawrence High junior Baylee Unruh taps the ball over the net against Free State in Tuesday's triangular at LHS.

When the ball fell to the floor for the final time Tuesday, Lawrence High senior Laurel Bird slid to the hardwood in celebration and quickly was mobbed by a group of her teammates.

For the LHS volleyball team, it fittingly ended with yet another stellar defensive play.

On match point in the City Showdown, Lawrence juniors Abby Monroe and Sammy Williams combined on a block to seal a straight-set victory over Free State, 25-21, 25-20, at home. The Lions ended a nine-match losing streak against their crosstown foes, handing the Firebirds their first loss in Sunflower League play.

Despite the loss, Free State (22-8, 12-1 in league) clinched at least a share of the league title with its victory against Leavenworth earlier in Tuesday’s triangular. It’s the program’s first league championship since 2012.

“We put in a lot of work in practice,” Monroe said. “We really worked on blocking. I think that kind of showed tonight.”

In a matchup between two teams ranked in the top-10 in the state, the Lions (17-6, 9-2 in league) reeled off three straight points to win the first set, which included kills from Monroe and junior Michaela Cordova. The Firebirds tied the score at 18-all following a kill from senior Cameryn Thomas, but couldn’t find the go-ahead point.

After the first set victory, several LHS players said it only helped calm them down. The Lions never trailed after setter Laura Willoughby recorded three service aces in one rotation. Monroe, Williams and Cordova had three kills apiece, and senior Katelyn Mask added two.

“There was no point after the first set where I was like, ‘I don’t know.’ Like I knew we we had it and I knew we were going to finish the game,” said Bird, who had 13 assists.

In the second set, the seventh-ranked Lions registered four blocks and received strong help from libero Lauren Maceli and defensive specialist Hannah Stewart.

With the defense clicking, junior Baylee Unruh (four kills) and Cordova (three) highlighted Lawrence’s offense and helped score the final five points to avoid a third set.

“We have been solid defensively all season,” LHS coach Stephanie Scarbrough said. “While I’m pleased with what they did, I had no doubt.”

Free State junior Rachel Hickman, committed to play at Kansas, led the No. 10-ranked Firebirds with six kills, while sophomore Kaitlyn Hamilton had four kills on assists from setter Mya Gleason.

Free State’s Haley Hippe and Haylee Kern each recorded a block, but the Firebirds just couldn’t notch decisive points. Free State coach Keely Hammontree credited Lawrence’s passers for keeping plays alive, but thought the Firebirds didn’t help themselves on offense.

“We also weren’t swinging to where we need to be swinging to,” Hammontree said. “If you swing right at the defense, it’s hard to score. That was our biggest problem.”

Before the City Showdown match, both schools dedicated Tuesday’s “Dig Pink” match to Kristi McAlister, the mother of a freshman Free State volleyball player who was diagnosed with breast cancer.

All of the players from both schools lined up in a straight line to give hugs and flowers to McAlister prior to the match.

“Last year Free State was amazing to me in my journey,” Scarbrough, who was diagnosed with breast cancer prior to the 2016 season, told the crowd beforehand. “We’re going to extend that support to a Free State parent tonight.”

The two schools will meet again later this month for a City Showdown dual at LHS. Earlier in Tuesday’s triangular, Lawrence won 25-17, 25-14 over Leavenworth and Free State followed with a 25-17, 25-21 win.