by Kyle Koso
KANSAS CITY, MO -- For the Drive Nation Red 15 Elite squad, Sunday's final match at the Triple Crown NIT unfolded at first like a highlight reel.
And while the plot shifted into more tense territory, Drive Nation (TX) refused to get flustered and made sure to capitalize on it many strengths, moving past Dynasty (KS) in two sets, 25-13, 25-22, to earn a spot in the 15 Elite quarterfinals of the Triple Crown NIT.
With setter Lily Nicholson dealing the ball, Drive Nation offensive forces Samantha Hoppes and Lauryn Hill simply overwhelmed everything in their path in Game 1, which got off to a bizarre start after a 10-minute delay that ended up wiping Dynasty's first two points off the scoreboard. Not only did the points come with ease, the Drive Nation defense was taking charge at the net - a block from Hoppes made it 18-8, and there was little debate at how the game would end.
Dynasty seemed refreshed after getting out of the first game and began to make Drive Nation sweat. A cluster of kills from Rylee Unruh and some timely swings by Adelyn Bybee pushed Dynasty up as much as 7-3 and 12-9, which got Drive Nation thinking about how to respond.
"I'm a very energetic person, and my team is very supportive. That's the best thing," said Hoppes. "I just try to take advantage of that moment and do my best. Sometimes, I don't always make the blocks, but I try not to get frustrated. When we got off the court (in between games), we decided we'd do what it takes and not let a ball hit the floor. We tried to stick together."
"I know I don't always have to put the ball down. I can look for high hands, and remember to breathe," said Hill, who was a little wild on two shots in Game 2 but nailed a key winner to tie it at 22-all. "We were trying not to freak out in Game 2, and remember that it's one point at a time. Whatever we put our minds to, we can do it, play not as individuals."
Drive Nation's roster is still rather new, so players and roles are still settling into place. Head coach Kevin Anderson has the comfort of not just two primary hammers in Hoppes and Hill, but other players who play well in big moments.
The team came back from those early Game 2 holes to take a 20-17 lead, only to see Dynasty sprint back ahead, 21-20. Alexa Grabow put one down to tie it at 21-all, and after Dynasty made an out-of-character error to fall behind 23-22, Autumn Perry finished it off for Drive Nation with two big-time kills.
"We had a hitting error, when we could have gone up 21-17; we had to battle back. We knew offensively that if we could stay in system, they wouldn't be able to stop us," Anderson said. "When (Hoppes and Hill) are rolling, we all are rolling, is what it comes down to. We are where we thought we should be; Saturday wasn't the best day for us, but we got in a rhythm today."