NEW LONDON — When opportunity came knocking at Keaura Williams' door, the 5-foot-11 freshman middle hitter for the New London High School volleyball team kicked in that door.
Williams, who got thrown into the fire when sophomore Paris Wilka went down with an injury before the season, has flourished in her new role.
Williams, who leads the Tigers in kills, came up big in the clutch, leading New London to a 25-18, 25-20, 17-25, 25-22 win over Class 1A's fifth-ranked Holy Trinity in a crucial SEI Superconference South Division match on Thursday night at Charles Lorber Gymnasium.
Williams may be just a freshman, but she played like a senior down the stretch, pounding down four of her eight kills in the fourth set to end the Tigers' four-match losing streak against the rival Crusaders.
"I was so scared at first. I was like, 'I can't do this.' I was so scared. But then after I got playing they took me in and we all became a team," said Williams, who is averaging 2.56 kills per set. "I love (Wilka), but it opened up an opportunity for me."
"She has been high on kills several times or second on kills by one. Just big, huge blocks in there," New London head coach Maureen Heath said. "I coached her in eighth grade. I knew right away I was going to put her right in. But for her to grow up and play like that already, I just think that is amazing."
New London (9-2 overall, 2-1 South Division) took Holy Trinity (5-3, 1-1) out of its offense for much of the first two sets. The Tigers used aggressive serving — the missed just one serve all night — to force the Crusaders to tip and push in the early going, causing numerous errors. Holy Trinity led just twice in the opening set and three times in the second.
"We took them out of their offense and got them to err the ball, especially in game one. You don't see that out of them very often. We tried to keep our composure and keep working and fighting and playing our game," Heath said.
"It's been that way the last couple weeks. We've been trying to serve aggressively and doing some good things, but the errors and errors in big, big points," Holy Trinity head coach Melissa Freesmeier said. "In game three we have an opportunity to win, we're at the service line and we miss two big serves. You can't do that. You just can't do that against good teams. We've got to get our mindset stronger. We have a couple kids that really want to get out there and fight. We have really nice kids. We just have to get them tough. I know they want to win. I know that they get along great. We're going to go back to the gym (Friday) and get better."
Holy Trinity looked like the Crusaders of old in the third set. The Crusaders used aggressive serving and touches at the net to stifle New London's offense, allowing Claire Pothitakis, Kassi Randolph and Brooke Mueller to start pounding away at the New London defense.
The Crusaders took all the momentum heading into the fourth set.
"That was our game plan. In games on and two it didn't happen. So we're like, 'OK. Now we're going,'" Freesmeier said.
"We got down a little bit and then we came back up," Williams said. "(Heath) told us to keep going, keep on fighting. We can do it."
"The third and fourth are so tough to win. That's why things get pushed to five. They just stayed so mentally tough. I know they are physically tired, but we've had a great week," Heath said.
With junior libero Kyra Linkin putting up perfect passes to setter Aliyah Christensen, the Tigers got back in system, allowing Williams, Sofie ReighardEmma Pry and Alexa Wenger to swing away.
Still, Holy Trinity knotted the score at 20 on a spike by Mueller.
Williams responded with a spike to the back row to give New London the lead for good. Three Holy Trinity hitting errors closed the match.
"It was great. We played as a team. We came all together. It was awesome," said Williams, who got pointers during the match from Wilka. "She was telling me to tip right."
"I learned they were playing tough tonight. We tried to stay composed because when we played Central Lee we were kind of strung out and too up and down," Heath said. "So we tried to stay level and composed, especially after our five-game match at Danville Tuesday. But we didn't want to use any excuses like being tired or the heat or anything. We all can get up for a game against Holy Trinity. They showed me some great things tonight. I'm so proud of them. To have that conference win against Holy Trinity throws a little wrench in the way things may turn out. We're just going to keep working hard and playing hard and enjoy this win because it's two great programs battling it out. I thought our girls fought really hard."
"I expected that. I expected nothing less from New London. They're a great ball club and they are coached well," Freesmeier said. "We're going to see them a couple more times this year. We're not looking forward to that anymore than they are. But it's fun. You have to play the game and may the best team win. We're going to keep pushing and finding those kids to step up. These are good kids and they never quit. This team never quit. I think eventually they're going to be OK."
Kills — Kassi Randolph 17, Claire Pothitakis 14, Brooke Mueller 11, Avery Hopper 5, Katie Denning 4, Bailey Hellweg 3
Assists — Randolph 25, Hellweg 22
Serving — Maille Sheerin 19-20 (2 aces), Randolph 10-11 (1 ace), Hellweg 10-11, Mueller 5-6, Pothitakis 8-10
Blocks — Hopper 5, Denning 4, Hellweg 2, Pothitakis 1
Digs — Maria Rauenbuehler 25, Sheerin 19, Mueller 11, Taylor Crabtree 11, Randolph 9, Pothitakis 8, Hellweg 6
Kills — Addie Pry 13, Keaura Williams 8, Alexa Wenger 6, Marah Hartrick 2
Assists — Aliyah Christensen 34, Williams 2, Hartrick 1
Serving — Christensen 21-21 (1 ace), Natalie Burden 17-17, Hartrick 15-15 (1 ace), Pry 13-13 (1 ace), Wenger 16-17 (2 aces)
Blocks — Sogie Reighard 5, Christensen 4, Hartrick 2, Williams 1
Digs — Hartrick 34, Kyra Linkin 27, Wenger 17, Christensen 16, Pry 4
Records — Holy Trinity 5-3 overall (1-1 SEI Superconference South Division), New London 9-2 (2-1)