Just two days short of its one-year anniversary, one of the area’s most dominant volleyball streaks has come to a halt courtesy of the Cleveland Rams.
Princeton, the 2014 1A state champion and the 2015 state runner-up, hadn’t dropped a regular season match since Aug. 20 of last year — a stretch that spanned 363 days and 23 victories.
But Cleveland’s young, balanced squad proved to be too much for the host Bulldogs, who were topped 25-23, 25-13, 17-25 and 26-24 on Thursday in the non-conference spike showdown.
It was also Princeton’s first defeat in its new gymnasium, which opened late last season and served as the site for the Bulldogs’ playoff events.
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“To come in here and pull this one out is huge for our team,’’ said Cleveland coach Shelley Johnston, who saw her Rams improve to 2-1 overall. “We lost five seniors from last year, including our two middle hitters. We only have four seniors now, so we have some new people (in the lineup). We had an exhausting match (Wednesday) and lost to West Johnston in five sets. So it was nice to come back quickly and get a win.’’
The Bulldogs (2-1) lost the first two sets and made some uncharacteristic mistakes before rallying with a third-set triumph. Princeton came within one point of extending the contest to a decisive fifth set, but the Rams finished with three straight points to finish things off.
“In the second set, we did not play to our capability,’’ said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow. “I was happy with the first set, even though we lost, but the second set was a wash. Cleveland is a good opponent — a strong volleyball team. In the third and fourth sets, we were able to eliminate some of our earlier errors. We always want to play bigger schools to help us prepare for our conference and the playoffs.’’
Like Princeton, Cleveland also made a solid postseason run in 2015, though on the 3A level. The Rams advanced to the third round before falling to Two Rivers Conference rival Erwin Triton.
“We would like to make it farther this year,’’ said Cleveland junior hitter Taylor Thomas. “We have some work to do, but I think we can do it.’’
Princeton’s comeback reached its apex in the fourth set when back-to-back kills from Daisy Eklund pushed the Bulldogs ahead 24-23, and on the verge of forcing a final set. Johnston called time-out and reminded her players of a strategy she had been accentuating since the second set.
“We needed to be tipping the ball over the blockers, because there was a hole in the middle of the court,’’ Johnston said.
On cue, Cleveland sophomore Ashley Talbot dropped a tip for a winner that gave serve to teammate Jenna Myer (another sophomore), who would deliver the next to points to close out the match. Rams’ senior Taylor Woods collected a kill on match point.
“In the beginning, we thought it was going to be easy but (Princeton) came back on us,’’ Thomas said. “We had to really fight for it in the fourth set. Our younger players are really doing well.’’
THREE TO KNOW
Daisy Eklund, Princeton: One of the area’s top players, Eklund offered another well-rounded performance with 18 kills, four blocks and four aces to go with her effective work when she was rotated to the back row. Eklund, who transferred to Princeton before the 2015 season from West Virginia, has verbally committed to continue her career at the University of Hartford.
“(Eklund) can do it all,’’ Renfrow said. “We were lucky to have her fall into our lap last season. One of the most impressive things about her is that she is always willing to improve in whatever area you ask of her. She can hit the ball at the net and have soft touches from the back when passing. She can also attack from the back row.’’
Taylor Thomas, Cleveland: Thomas paced the Rams’ deep net attack with eight kills. She also collected one ace.
Taylor Hein, Cleveland: Yet another underclassman for Cleveland, Hein picked up six kill and four aces as part of her solid performance. Her six-point sequence in the second set, which featured three aces in a row, helped the Rams extend to an 11-1 cushion.
BY THE NUMBERS
9: Number of Cleveland players who registered at least one kill Thursday. The Rams don’t have a splashy, dominant-force hitter, but they certainly have plenty of options to choose from at the net.
“I think that is a strength for us to have more than one go-to player,’’ Johnston said. “It puts pressure (on the other team) when you have to think about blocking more than one person. We just have to sometimes think about tipping the ball over the blocker instead of just trying to kill it every time.’’
19: Princeton was able to collect 19 kills aside from Eklund’s lofty outing. Renfrow knows that building up-front depth behind Eklund will be crucial to the Bulldogs’ success, especially in the postseason.
“I feel like we can be just as strong as we have been offensively,’’ Renfrow said. “We just haven’t played together as long as (last year’s team) played together. We are still learning each other, but that will come.’’
Kortney Edwards complemented Eklund with nine kills.
11: The Bulldogs are known for their efficient play, but they committed 11 unforced serving errors on Thursday -- a total that helped contribute to Princeton’s early deficit.
12: Cleveland’s red-hot service featured one dozen aces: four each from Hein and Myer.
Cleveland’s decision to focus on tipping over blocks proved to be a successful strategy, especially in the fourth set. The Rams had six tips for clean winners in that set alone.
“Coach actually started telling us to do that in the second set,’’ Thomas said. “We started a little too late with it. We needed to do it sooner.’’