By Walter Villa
LAS VEGAS, Nev. – There has been no disruption at Assumption (Louisville, Ky.).
After graduating six players from last year’s state championship team – all of whom are now competing in college – the Rockets are still rising.
On Saturday night, Los Alamitos (Los Alamitos, Calif.) felt the full force of the Assumption machine, getting overpowered for much of the Rockets’ 25-13, 25-19 victory in the championship match of the Durango Fall Classic.
Senior setter Katie George, who was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, helped Assumption lead from wire-to-wire in the first set, and the Rockets fell behind only briefly in the early stages of the second.
“This is just icing on the cake,” George said of the MVP. “The main thing I’m happy about is our team won.”
The Rockets won by doing just about everything right. They utilized their short tip, they slowed Los Alamitos’ 6-foot-2 middle hitter Crissy Jones and they thrived even when offensive plays broke down.
A couple of questionable calls went Assumption’s way, but give the Rockets’ defense credit. They got their hands on just about everything, and their serve seemed to handcuff Los Alamitos.
Assumption, which also won Durango in 2005, is now the first non-California team to win the prestigious event twice.
The Rockets’ success in 2011 has surprised even those in Assumption’s inner circle, who figured the team would suffer – at least initially – without talents such as middle blocker Jeni Houser (Notre Dame), libero Jackie Napper (Kentucky) and setter Courtney Robison (West Virginia).
The other graduated stars were outside hitters Claire Gerwig (Western Michigan) and Taylor Allgeier (Eastern Kentucky) and opposite hitter Laura Purcell (Loyola-Chicago).
“I had my doubts,” George said when asked if she thought the Rockets would be this good this quickly. “But we’re so much further along than where we were last year. We’re jelling as a team. This tournament was exactly what we needed.”
The Rockets (22-1), ranked 13th in the POWERADE FAB 50 national volleyball rankings, have already beaten powers such as Sacred Heart (Louisville, Ky.), Muncie Burris (Muncie, Ind.) and Muncie Central (Muncie, Ind.).
And that was before Durango. Now you can add wins over tough outs such as Mater Dei (Santa Ana, Calif.), No. 30 Redondo Union (Redondo Beach, Calif.), La Costa Canyon (Carlsbad, Calif.) and No. 7 Los Alamitos.
“We knew we had some good talent waiting,” coach Ron Kordes said of his returners. “Still, I’ve been impressed with the way the girls have come out and played like veterans right away.”
The 2011 Rockets have four players who have committed to Division I colleges: George (Louisville); senior libero Chelsea Bowles (Tennessee-Martin) and junior defensive specialists Kaelin Grimes (Western Kentucky) and London Ackerman (Georgia Tech).
Other standouts include 5-8 sophomore setter Alexa Filley; 6-3 junior middle blocker Taylor Paulson; 6-0 senior middle blocker Dallas Zimmerman; and 5-10 senior outside hitter Taylor Long.
Kordes said Paulson was an especially big factor on Saturday, but the middle blocker gave credit to the entire team.
“I think our serve and our serve-receive were big,” Paulson said. “We work really hard on serving deep with our floaters. We serve to the outside, and that makes it a lot harder for them to get around the ball, which causes mistakes. That was our tactic, and it worked.”
Assumption lost just one set this weekend, and that came on Saturday morning in a 26-24, 15-25, 25-9 win over Mater Dei.
On the season, Assumption’s only loss came last week against No. 20 Chattahoochee (Johns Creek, Ga.), 27-25, 21-25, 25-19.
“They had these two outside hitters, and we couldn’t stop them,” Paulson of the Georgia team. “They were two awesome players, and they went right over our block. What are you supposed to do?”
Actually, what the Rockets are supposed to do now is celebrate. Paulson said she and her teammates were prepared to have fun Saturday night.
“We are going to walk the Strip, have a little Vegas time,” Paulson said. “It’ll be fun. Dress up, take pictures, stuff like that.”
With the title secured, many of the Assumption players and parents turned their post-game attention to the hometown Louisville Cardinals, who had a Saturday night game at in-state rival Kentucky.
Rooting for Louisville is an especially big passion for George, the Cardinals recruit.
“I’m a huge U of L fan,” George said. “If they beat Kentucky, that would make it a perfect day.”
George’s wish was granted later Saturday night as Louisville won 24-17, snapping a four-game skid in the series against Kentucky.
Somewhere on the Strip, you can bet George and the rest of the Assumption girls were whooping it up.