"This group of seniors hasn't experienced a state win so I'm happy for them," Golden Eagles coach Dave DeNure said. "I'm glad to get the win under our belt and move on."
Senior setter Vanessa Pulice was thrilled that Morris Knolls prevailed in the first round. Pulice's performance was critical to the outcome. She had 19 assists and two aces.
"It was exciting. We played well," Pulice said. "It was a big game. We stayed positive. That's been a problem all season. Sometimes, we get frustrated. This time, after a mistake, we fixed it. We made things better instead of getting down."
Getting past West Orange wasn't easy.
The Golden Eagles (16-10) came back from a three-point deficit in the first set thanks to the serving of Andrea Bush, a junior outside hitter. With Morris Knolls trailing, 17-20, Bush reeled off eight service points. In the second set, West Orange trailed early then bounded back. The Golden Eagles remained poised and patient, coming out ahead aided by strong efforts by outside hitters Erin Bongo and Bush. West Orange didn't help itself, either, by committing an uncharacteristic six service errors.
DeNure warned his squad about West Orange's dangerous hitters, namely Chavi St. Hill, a junior. Hill did her share of damage with three blocks and nine kills. Still, Morris Knolls was able to contain her when it counted.
"West Orange is a good team and was here for a reason," DeNure said. "I told the girls they will score points. We couldn't be discouraged or disappointed when they scored. We had to limit their runs."
Critical to the outcome, too, was the fact that the Golden Eagles were determined yet calm.
"We didn't let down," DeNure said. "We didn't panic. We played to 25 (points). We played all the way through."
Like the majority of area teams, Morris Knolls hadn't had a match since late last week. The Golden Eagles practiced on Friday and Saturday in their gym. On Monday when school was closed due to the snowstorm, practice was held at Jefferson High School. They went to PowerZone in Denville on Tuesday.
The layoff didn't hurt Morris Knolls any. The Golden Eagles received a huge boost from Bush, who had nine kills, three aces and a block, late in the first set.
"When something like that happens, you get excited and rally around it," said DeNure in reference to Bush's string of eight service points. "You want to go on runs but limit the other team. It's pretty uplifting."
Morris Knolls carried the momentum into the second set, quickly jumping out to a 9-3 advantage. West Orange crept closer and, facing a 14-9 deficit, commenced its longest run of the match - five points - to pull even, 14-14. St. Hill seemed to be in on every play during that small stretch, registering a kill and a pair of blocks.
From there, service mistakes and unforced errors dogged West Orange (14-8) at inopportune times. Ahead by only one, 19-18, the Golden Eagles got three points in a row, the most impressive a kill by Bush. Ultimately, Morris Knolls would pull out the match on West Orange's mistakes.
"It came down to too many errors," West Orange coach Kristen O'Connell said. "We had a lack of focus at times. The girls weren't ready for what the other team was giving back to them."
St. Hill, with only one year of club volleyball, continued to impress O'Connell with her talents at the net.
"Chavi is amazing," O'Connell said. "She's become a very good player and much of it is pure athleticism."
Pulice, likewise, shined, making saves off the net and racing to the back of the court to keep the ball in play.
"I hustle," Pulice said. "I don't like to see the ball drop."
Bongo finished withh five kills for Morris Knolls while junior outside hitter Courtney Otten had three aces.
Next up for the Golden Eagles in the state tournament is third-seeded Ridge. That match will take place today at 4 p.m.