CARTERVILLE — When Nathan Emrick was hired as Carterville’s volleyball coach last spring, it was seen as a home run hire for the Lions.
That may turn out to be true in time, but in this pandemic-shortened spring season, Emrick has found himself searching for a way to get his team out of the blocks.
They didn’t find it Tuesday night against SIRR Mississippi leader Pinckneyville. Slow starts in each game doomed Carterville to a 25-21, 25-16 home defeat, dropping it to a 3-7 overall record and 2-3 in the conference.
With most of their starters returning from a 2019 team that gained strength as the season progressed and advanced to the Class 2A Pinckneyville Regional final, the Lions were seen as a darkhorse in one of the area’s deepest conferences.
The consensus from conference coaches seems to be that Carterville will be fine in time. Emrick won consistently at Cobden, taking it to a Super-Sectional in 2017 and winning seven straight regional titles.
Right now, he knows what must be done. Extracting that kind of performance from his new team is the goal.
“Every year, teams have one thing that’s their Achilles’ heel, and unfortunately, that’s ours,” Emrick said of his team’s inability to consistently get off to early leads. “No matter what we try, it seems like it kicks us in the butt.”
And slow starts against a talented, powerful team like the Panthers (12-1, 5-0) are the equivalent of writing one’s death sentence. Emrick called a timeout before his team even scored a point, thanks to a 4-0 run to open the match.
It did little good. Pinckneyville made most of the first game look easy because it was easy. It used its superior height to full effect, making good use of 6-3 Bella Pasquino and 6-1 Kassidy Lee off a variety of sets from Jillian Shaneyfelt.
It was 23-12 late in the first game before the Lions mustered a sustained response. Out of nowhere, they scored eight straight points as the Panthers suddenly experienced frightful difficulties making passes.
Even after his team clinched a first game win when Lee pounded down one of her seven kills, Pinckneyville coach Mike Layne was worried that Carterville would carry over that momentum into the second game.
“We talked about that between games,” Layne said. “We didn’t end the first game as strongly as we wanted. The wheels can come off in a hurry in volleyball, but I was proud of how we responded in the second game.”
Here’s how the Panthers responded: Nine straight points after the Lions managed the first two. Addie Waggoner delivered three kills in that stretch with Pasquino adding one of her match-high eight.
The margin reached 15-5, and although Carterville made it a bit more respectable after that, Pinckneyville was never really pushed.
“They’re too good and too skilled and too well-coached to do that,” Emrick said of the bad starts. “You can’t do that against any River-to-River team. We’re still trying to figure things out, and hopefully, we can figure things out the last eight (matches).”
Pasquino collected a match-high eight kills and hit an impressive .467 in another solid performance. Shaneyfelt finished with 16 assists and Chloe Yates added four blocks, helping the Panthers keep Lions star Averi Vanderzille from exerting much impact.
“We’re getting more consistent with our system,” Layne said. “When we get on our nice runs, you can tell how that’s working.”