DENVER • It’s hard enough to make it to the state volleyball tournament with a first-year setter, but to do it with a first-time setter? That’s tough.
And that’s exactly what St. Mary’s has done this season.
Not only that, but the Pirates won their first match of the round-robin portion of the 3A state tournament with a 25-5, 27-25, 26-24 decision over Sterling Friday and stand a victory away from a semifinal berth. St. Mary’s will face University at 8 a.m. Saturday at the Denver Coliseum.
Getting them there has been senior Nicole Niles, who never expected to be a setter at all.
When Laura Broerman was lost during the offseason with an injury, St. Mary’s coach Melissa Sweeney was in a bind. After some deliberation, she approached Niles, who had been a right-side hitter.
“Nicole was great; we talked about if she was going to be able to do this and wanted to do this,” said Sweeney, who has taken St. Mary’s to the state tournament in 10 of her 13 years as coach. “She’s a senior with a lot of confidence and leadership and she was like, ‘Let’s go for it.’”
Setter is perhaps the most difficult position on the floor. The setter reads the defense while positioning herself to receive the initial pass. Then, through intuition, verbal communication and subtle signals, delivers the set to the hitter. All of that normally takes 3 seconds or less.
Despite having never played the position at any level, Niles has been a natural.
“Usually I look first at the blockers and see who’s most open and then I go off of my position and go with what feels right,” Niles said. “Our team feeds well off each other so it’s easy to read each other’s body language and work off of that.
“The team was very patient with me. It’s been a process and we’re still going through it.”
The process is going very well. That and the Pirates’ state tournament experience was evident early in Friday’s match as St. Mary’s rolled to a 20-point first-set win.
“Our first (set) we came out with a lot of energy, a lot of pizzazz,” Sweeney said. “Then Sterling decided to relax a little bit and give us a little work for our money.”
Sterling pushed St. Mary’s to extra points in the final two sets but the Pirates withstood both challenges to earn the straight-sets victory.
Emily Whitelaw led St. Mary’s with 13 kills, while Bria Sweeney had eight kills and 18 digs and Sarah Tentschert added six kills and 19 digs. Middle blocker Hanna Stockelman had seven kills and 11 digs.
Niles was the architect of that balanced attack, handing out 30 assists and making very few mistakes.
“She’s just been a great learner,” Melissa Sweeney said. “You would think she was setting for the last four years.”
One of six St. Mary’s seniors who have been playing together since middle school, Niles’ transformation received a lot of support.
“I told her at the beginning of the season that ‘you’re going to be the best setter in the world’ and I still believe that,” Stockelman, a senior, said. “She’s just come so far. Of course she would get frustrated with herself but she was able to really step up and do what we needed her to do to be here today.”