LAKEWOOD RANCH — Mariah Robertson wasn’t her usual self — at least not initially.
By her own admission, the usually dominant senior outside hitter was perhaps a little too emotional at the start of the Lady Mustangs season opener against rival Braden River Aug. 28.
It was the first of two meetings this season for the East County rivals, and after spending countless hours preparing over the offseason, Robertson was eager to take the court in one of the most anticipated games of the season.
But in a game filled with spirit and emotion, Robertson admits she was somewhat affected by all of the distractions that come about when you’re playing your biggest rival.
Robertson and the Lady Mustangs took an early 5-1 lead in the first game before the Lady Pirates rallied twice to tie the game before eventually holding on for a 25-23 victory.
The two teams battled back and forth in the second game, which featured 12 lead changes, before the Lady Mustangs scored two straight points to win the second game 26-24.
“It was definitely a rough start,” Robertson said. “I really let the pregame nerves set in a little too much but that’s what is expected when so much is riding on a game. I definitely started relaxing and getting into my rhythm after the first game. I kind of just let go and began to block out the crowd and forget everything else around me. I just got my head right and my playing followed.”
Lakewood went on to win the next two games 25-23, 25-9 to open their season 1-0.
“Beating Braden River is probably the best feeling ever,” Robertson said. “Not only is it a big accomplishment for me, but for the whole team. It’s gives us confidence, but it also is awesome to be able to represent your school well in beating your rival.”
Robertson finished with 12 kills, three aces and five assists to lead the way for Lakewood. Senior Emily Ruple added nine kills, one block, one ace and 12 assists. Junior Ashlyn Falahee finished with nine kills, one block, three aces and one assist, and junior setter Ali Milbourn added two kills, two aces and 44 assists.
“We knew that they do short serves and they tip a lot, so we were ready for that, but we just weren’t reacting quite well,” Lakewood coach Perri Hankins said. “We’ve been playing well. I think we’re progressing like we should be. This has been our biggest challenge so far.
“It’s very important to get that first win and what better way to get it than against Braden River,” Hankins said. “I think this will really help us to know what we need to work on and even get better.”
On the other side of the net, senior setter Demi-Shay Watchorn finished with 10 kills, two aces and 13 assists to lead the way for Braden River. Senior setter Courtney McDevitt added seven kills, one block and 11 assists.
“The biggest thing was our younger players letting the pressure situation get to them,” Braden River coach Matt McElhinney said. “Our four starting sophomores really needed to focus on small details in the match … some took some plays off that costs us some easy points and changed the momentum of the match. Lakewood Ranch stepped it up at the end of each game, and we kind of drifted off.
We talked after the game and will use this as experience in the future,” McElhinney said. “Our team has some talent, and our sophomores are the key. If they can stay mentally strong throughout matches, then we will give ourselves a chance to win against any team.”
Lakewood followed up its victory with a 13-25, 25-22, 25-21, 25-19 victory over the Manatee Hurricanes Aug. 30. Robertson finished with nine kills and junior Lauren Owens added eight kills. Senior Jordan Wopinski finished with 17 assists and 20 digs.
The Lady Mustangs and the Lady Pirates will meet for the second time this season Sept. 18.
“Winning was definitely a blessing,” Robertson said. “I am so thankful to have such a great team and I think we really deserved the win. We have put in a lot of hard hours inside and outside of school and I think it’s paying off. I think this is just the beginning to a great season and I’m so ready for it.”
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