In many ways, it proved to the girls and their fans Northwestern was back in stride.
Five days before the loss at New Fairfield, Highlander star Molly Clarke went down with a torn ACL in a 3-0 win against Holy Cross.
Northwestern was 8-2 before it lost Clarke. Afterwards, the Highlanders went 2-3, including the loss to the Rebels, 7-12 in the South West Conference (SWC).
“There were a couple of games where we just tried to get by,” said Northwestern coach Jon Hurlock.
Clarke, a junior, and sophomore Molly Porch were particularly effective as a tandem of hitters for the Highlanders.
“When (Clarke) went out, we had to figure out our rotation,” said Porch.
“We were working out the lineup in the middle of our losses,” said senior Melissa Uribe.
Despite wins against Terryville and Gilbert in the regrouping, Wednesday’s win over New Fairfield was the first real proof the adjustments were clicking.
“I moved Molly Porch up to Molly Clark’s spot and made a few more shifts,” said Coach Hurlock.
Wednesday, Porch clicked in with 16 kills, 6 digs and 8 aces. Uribe got more sets on the front row, turning them into 7 kills, 3 digs and 2 aces. Junior Megan McGrath also got more time, contributing five kills and three key blocks.
In spite of New Fairfield’s record, the win is a big corner – first because the Highlanders hung in after an opening-game loss, then because a losing record in the SWC is deceiving.
“The SWC plays much better volleyball than we do (in the Berkshire League),” said Coach Hurlock.
“There are no easy games,” said Coach Jim Mills, who coached Hurlock at Farmington as a JV coach for the Indians.
Game one Wednesday was a combination of stiff opposition and a Highlander group still finding its way.
Rebel Julia Tovolilla (9 assists, 10 kills, 4 blocks) established herself as a force at the net, but New Fairfield build a consistent lead as much by unforced Highlander errors as its own strengths.
Back-to-back Porch and Uribe kills kept Northwestern close, to 16-13. Then the Rebels pulled away, through six unforced errors, two aces by Rebel Natalie Chadwick and a pair of kills by Tovolilla, 25-14.
In a match in which the Highlanders’ identity struggles played out from game to game, Northwestern found itself in Game Two, starting with Porch on the service line after a McGrath block, 10-7 Rebels.
Porch pitched four aces, interrupted by a kill from teammate Kate Matava. Northwestern took the lead 12-10, holding it for the rest of the game.
Both sides made mistakes, but three aces by Matava established the service line as a major Northwestern strength.
New Fairfield hung on for a 23-18 deficit, then gave up the last two points on errors.
Uribe picked up the Highlander attack with a pair of early kills in Game Three. McGrath was a force at the net with three kills mid-game. Porch was back at the service line for a pair of aces down the stretch, then the final kill, 25-20.
At two games to one, Northwestern, the melding process might have seemed complete.
The Rebels, needing one more win to qualify for the state tournament, jumped to a 7-2 lead in the fourth game; the Highlanders never came back, 25-14.
One more time, Northwestern found itself. Porch and McGrath were at their best, leading Northwestern to an 11-7 lead in the final 15-point game with a combined five kills. Porch had one more ace. The Highlanders found an open spot in New Fairfield’s court, 13-8.
Gina Pedrolini, out sick for several games, rose up for two huge kills to seal the Highlanders’ return.
New Fairfield tries for its qualifying win Thursday in its final regular-season game, at home against 13-6 Oxford from the NVL.
Northwestern has two more regular-season games before next week’s Berkshire League Tournament, at Nonnewaug Thursday, at home against Housatonic Tuesday.
Northwestern 3, New Fairfield 2
(14-25, 25-18, 25-20, 14-25, 15-10)
At Northwestern High School
Highlights: NF – Sarah Handau 4 kills, 5 aces, 1 dig; Julia Tavolilla 9 assists, 10 kills, 1 ace, 4 blocks, 7 digs; Natalie Chadwick 10 assists, 4 aces, 1 block. NW – Molly Porch 16 kills, 6digs, 8 aces; Megan McGrath 5 kills, 3 blocks; Melissa Uribe 7 kills, 3 digs, 2 aces.
Records: New Fairfield 7-12; Northwestern 11-5.