BURLINGTON – At first glance, Marian Central's front line doesn't seem intimidating while boasting only one 6-foot volleyball player.
Yet what had once been a weakness for the Hurricanes' program has turned into a game-changing unit that caused nightmares for Regina Dominican during Tuesday's Class 3A Burlington Sectional semifinal. Marian's dominance at the net continuously shut down Regina's attacks and put the defense in great position to run a dangerous offense. The Hurricanes scored seven points off blocks, including six in the second game, to lead them to a 25-16, 25-15 win.
Marian (22-16) advances to Thursday's sectional final against Burlington Central. The Hurricanes are appearing in a sectional final for the fourth consecutive year, part of a run that includes a sectional final appearance in six of the past seven years.
"We've been working really hard on our blocking," sophmore middle blocker Rachel Giustino said. "We did so many practice drills. We work our butts off."
Although Marian typically has had one standout middle blocker in past seasons, the presence of two blockers in the middle has created a dangerous duo. Giustino led Marian with four blocks, and senior middle blocker Hannah Davis added three blocks in the win.
"This is probably the best set of blockers we've had in terms of blocking and quickness," coach Laura Watling said. "It's just really fun to see because it's helping out everything else in the game when you can set up a block consistently and be in the right spot. It makes everybody else's job easier."
Panthers coach Robert Hughes was surprised by Marian's blocking ability. His team struggled to adjust against them throughout the match, one the Hurricanes never trailed.
"It's not that they're tall, they're just very athletic," Hughes said of Marian's blockers. "They get high, they reach and they press very well. Coming into this, it's one of those that your hitters need to figure out your way around [the blocks]."
Even when Marian didn't score a point off a block, the Hurricanes got plenty of touches off Regina's shots, which allowed the defense to deliver clean passes to run the offense. Four players recorded at least four kills for the Hurricanes, led by senior outside hitter Frankie Taylor's eight kills. Outside hitter Sydney Nemtuda added six kills.
"Now that we have more [attack options] and we're spreading it out, people aren't expecting it," Taylor said. "Personally, I have way more angles to swing. Adding [Nemtuda] and with our offense spreading out, our offense is definitely going to be killer."
The emergence of Nemtuda, a freshman, has made Marian more difficult to defend. Marian has a school policy that prohibits freshmen from playing on varsity until the postseason, but since Nemtuda has been in the lineup the Hurricanes have only gotten better offensively.
"Words can't say how proud I am of a freshman stepping up in the playoffs and performing at the level she is," Watling said of Nemtuda. "It's really fun to watch. I feel like she's starting to come into her own."