BEECHER — Spring break vacations took half of Gardner-South Wilmington's lineup out before the Panthers even made the bus ride to Beecher for Monday's River Valley Conference rivalry matchup, but the Bobcats knew in rivalries like this, the names on the court seem to be interchangeable with similarly-tight results every year.
The Bobcats took early advantage of a Panthers team that had to adjust on the fly, storming ahead to an early 8-1 lead in the first set and never looking back despite some threats along the way to a 2-0 (25-14, 25-21) victory Monday night.
Despite what on paper was an impressive victory, Bobcats coach Emily Doersam-Hoekstra said she and her team know their performance likely wouldn't cut the slack against a full-strength Panthers squad.
"Was it the way we wanted to play? No, but we came out with the win, and a win's a win," Doersam-Hoekstra said. "We know that going to G-SW [next month], if we play this way, it won't be the same outcome."
After the Bobcats came out of the gate on fire, Panthers coach Amber Eisha took a timeout to ease the nerves of her short-handed, under-experienced squad. With three starters and six total players away on spring break trips, the Panthers threw together lineups that hadn't been used all season with little practice time in advance.
The Bobcats still were able to take the first set with relative ease 25-14, but the Panthers displayed much more poise and consistency out of the break.
"When you get up on a team 8-1, you think it's gonna be a walk in the park, but our girls realized we had to show them, even if we lose [the first set], let's not make it easy," Eisha said. "That definitely helped us get out of that rut."
The Panthers looked primed to force a third set after pulling ahead early in the second, thanks in large part to Hannah Frescure rattling off a quartet of aces from the service line. The two teams traded a handful of leads in the second set before the Bobcats were able to seal the deal late.
Part of what led Beecher to its two-set sweep was a strong front, led by Rhiannon Saller (five blocks, one kill) and Morgan McDermott (three kills, one block). Paired up front with the likes of Faith Curran and Adrianna Picicco, Doeram-Hokestra particularly likes what she saw up front Monday and all season.
"We have some tall girls this year, and I like it," Doersam-Hoekstra said. "We have good blockers, and we can always work on things, but I'm very happy with what we have up front and what we have all the way around."
The Bobcats won it up front, but the Panthers certainly didn't lose it up front. Led by a fearless performance from Kylie Hawks (four blocks, two kills, one dig), the Panthers showed they can hang up front with even the strongest of squads, despite losing one of the RVC's best netfront presences ever in the graduated Kaitlynn Kavanaugh.
"These girls have shown they're just as capable on the block," Eisha said. "It's huge for these girls because Beecher is the hardest-hitting team we face all year, and we were blocking them."
Bobcats setter Talia Messana did a bit of everything with 14 assists, 13 digs, three aces, a kill and a block. Curran had 11 digs, three kills, two assists and a block. Picicco had eight digs, five kills and an ace. Lily Avelar had 17 digs, two assists and a kill.
Frescura added six assists and three digs to her four aces. Abby Beck had three kills and six digs. Colby Grieff had 10 digs and a kill.
The Bobcats (5-0) visit Illinois Lutheran at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday. The Panthers (4-1) will have first dibs against the Chargers when they visit Illinois Lutheran at 6 p.m. Tuesday.