VIRGINIA — Through their first two games of the season, the Virginia volleyball team was firing on all cylinders as they cruised past Two Harbors and Duluth Denfeld.
Monday presented them their first road block of the season as they fell to the visiting Esko Eskomos, 3-0 (25-16, 25-10, 25-23).
Down a player on short notice, the Blue Devils had to work their way through a floor rotation they had little practice with before Monday night. That, combined with a three-pronged offensive attack from Esko proved to be a difficult challenge as the visiting team sprinted out to big leads in the first two sets.
Esko raced out early to a 9-3 lead in the first set with Brenna Stark serving up a pair of aces within the first three points to get her squad ahead early, 3-0. Kills from Gabby Martenson and Jayden Karppinen as well as a few more aces from Taiya Gregg and Sara Olson carried the Eskomos to a 9-3 lead through 12 points.
The Blue Devils battled back thanks to the arm and serving of senior Lexiss Trygg. Trygg put down a kill to make it 9-4 and then served up back-to-back aces to cut the deficit to three. An Esko error followed by a kill from Elsie Hyppa got Virginia within one, but that’s as close as they would be able to get in the first set.
Esko took five of the next six points to force a timeout from Virginia head coach Jenessa Greenly. The Eskomos kept rolling after the break, however, and continued to use the arms of Martenson and Gregg to build their lead.
Outscoring Virginia 11-7 following the timeout, the Eskomos took set one 25-16, with the final point being earned on a Zoie Johnson kill on the right side.
Esko continued to take advantage of a disoriented Virginia squad in the second set as they opened up the next frame on a 9-2 run. Five of those first nine Esko points came from Blue Devil errors.
Virginia managed to get some offense going through the arm of Alexis Trygg, but it wasn’t enough to match the power of Gregg, Martenson and now Jayden Karppinen, who came alive in the second set.
A kill from Virginia’s Alosha Ranum got Virginia within six at 12-6, but the Eskomos kept their foot on the gas and scored 13 of the next 17 to take the second set, 25-10.
The third set was, undoubtedly, Virginia’s best of the night. Dropping their new rotation in favor of the rotation they used in their first two matches, the Blue Devils fought with Esko in set No. 3 every step of the way.
Trygg continued to guide the Devils offense. But the closer things got, the more the Eskomos turned to the arm of Gregg who could hit from nearly every position on the court.
Esko went on a small run to take a 13-8 lead, forcing another Virginia timeout. The Devils, however, closed the gap with more kills and an ace from Trygg, as well as some solid aces from Rian Aune and Macy Westby.
Tied at 16 following Aune’s ace, Gregg fired back for Esko with a pair of kills to make it 18-16. Esko added one more thanks to a tip from Johnson but two more points from Trygg and an Esko error knotted things at 19.
The teams went point for point with each other until they found themselves tied at 23. A tip from Martenson gave Esko No. 24, making way for Virginia’s final timeout.
Out of the break, the Devils couldn’t extend the match any longer as Karppinen put down the final kill to give Esko the match, 3-0.
Greenly said the change in rotations helped her squad in the third set but it was a big ask for her team to stop a strong Esko offense playing a new rotation on short notice.
“We started something brand new today that we hadn’t practiced in a couple of weeks,” Greenly said of the rotation in the first two sets. We had to run with it due to something out of our control and we weren’t mentally prepared when it came to running that.
“In the third set, we went back to our old rotation that we ran last week in our first two games and I think they got more comfortable with that one and it gave us a chance. We’ll continue to press on and work together as a team to see where we can improve and get to where we want to be.”
Greenly said her team tried to focus defensively on shutting down Esko’s Gregg, but the Eskomos had quite a few numbers to call if they were looking for a point.
“We were looking to stop Taiya [Gregg] and their other strong middle but wherever we went, they had someone else ready to hit. They had a very balanced attack and we had to cover a lot of bases and we just couldn’t handle it tonight.”
Greenly says it’s up in the air whether they will move forward with their new rotation or fall back on their old one. That’s a question that’s hard to answer while their squad isn’t at full strength.
“We just have to wait and see if we get everyone back that we need. But the girls will be fine as a team. They’ll bounce back. They’re a good group of girls and they work together well but we just weren’t there tonight mentally with all the changes we had to make and it was a big thing to ask on short notice.”
Virginia (2-1) will play host to Chisholm on Thursday.