The high school volleyball season is a marathon, not a sprint, and when Rapid City Stevens and Rapid City Central meet in any sport, it's a battle.
The Raiders, unbeaten and ranked first in the state, got a tussle on the court from the young Cobblers, but put Central away in the end of each matchup for the three-set victory at Howard Naasz Gymnasium, 25-14, 25-15 and 25-19.
Stevens senior middle hitter Phoebe Rossi said they could have had more focus in their first game with a big crowd, but they did what they needed to do to come out on top.
"It was two crowds (student sections) fighting back-and-forth, and we weren't focused all of the time," Rossi said. "We were having some fun, but I think we always found a way, even when we weren't focused, to come back and win."
Blocking is a big part of the Raiders' game, with Rossi and Carly Buehner having two solo blocks each, and a plethora of assisted blocks between them and teammate, junior Kyah Watson.
Stevens coach Kylie Voorhees said their serving game wasn't as sharp as it could have been early, but once it got where they wanted it, it kept the Cobblers off kilter.
"I think when our serving game got to where it needed to be, I think we really served them off the court," Voorhees said.
"Our offense picked up too, but that was all due to our passing game," she added. "When you passing game is one, we have phenomenal hitters and a lot of options. It really puts their block in a bind and outs us in a good situation."
Rossi led a balanced Stevens hitting attack with eight kills, while Buehner and Watson added seven kills each.
Those three, along with senior Elizabeth Schaefer and Emily Sobczak, give the Raiders a strong and balanced hitting attack.
"We have offense coming from everywhere, even the setter (senior Marlee Schneider), and we have added a backrow attack. It definitely keeps the other teams guessing," Voorhees said.
In all three sets, the Cobblers (3-6) hung around. Stevens (9-0) led 18-14, but closed the set with seven straight points, led by three kills and a solo block by Buehner.
It only was a 14-11 game in the second set before the Raiders took control, highlighted by three straight blocks — two by Buehner and Watson, and a solo stuff by Buehner.
"We focus on that (blocking) a lot in practice. There are always things you can tweak. We're always working on it, trying to improve," Rossi said.
Voorhees said they have big blockers and experienced blockers.
"We hit against each other every day, so the experience from the attackers helps make our block stronger," she said.
The Cobblers had their best set in the third, leading 10-7 behind the strong net play by junior Rhiannon Nez, who had two kills and a block to get Central going.
It was tied at 12-each after a kill by Ali Weber, and 15-15 on two Nez kills and a Stevens hitting error.
But a Rossi block, kill by Sobczak and serving ace by Schaefer turned the tide, and the Raiders closed strong for the win.
"I'm super proud of my girls, they kept their composure. Everything we have been working on, they executed tonight," Central coach Jeanne Deming said. "I just told them that there was no reason to hang your head. We played very well against the number one team in the state."
Schneider had four aces and Laura Petik added three, while Schneider finished with 29 set assists. Petik also had 12 digs.
Rossi said they are trying to focus on the little things instead of the big picture, which she said can be too stressful.
"It's game-by-game, point-by-point, just trying to do our best, improve every practice, and get ready for the ultimate combination at the end of the season," she said.
Stevens, which won the Gillette, Wyoming Tournament last weekend, will face Sturgis Tuesday before going on a three-match Sioux Falls swing Sept. 14-15.
There's still plenty of season left and Voorhees said they can't peak too early as there is always room for improvement.
"We just have to keep playing if we want to get to our goal at the end," she said.
Nez led all hitters with 10 kills for the Cobblers, while Abbie Freeman had 19 digs and Ramsey Deming added 16 assists.
Jeanne Deming said it has been a good last couple of weeks for the team since it opened the season with losses to Pierre and Aberdeen Central. The Cobblers were 3-3 in the Gillette tournament.
"They have worked hard, and we've really focused in on things that we need to improve on," she said. "We keep telling them that they have to believe that they are winners. It needs to come from them."
The Cobblers are in Sioux Falls for four matches Sept. 14-15.