Caesar Rodney advances in volleyball tourney

CAMDEN — Caesar Rodney High’s volleyball program had gotten pretty used to making the state tournament.

So last year, when the Riders missed the tourney, was one of those reminders that nothing is automatic.

But 16th-seeded CR made a successful return to the DIAA tournament on Thursday night, posting a 3-0 first-round victory over No. 17 Sussex Tech on its home court.

That’s the good news for the Riders (12-4) after posting the 25-14, 25-19, 25-14 victory over the Ravens (10-6).

The bad news is that now CR has to face top-seeded Tower Hill in Saturday’s second round. That match is tentatively scheduled to be played at Wilmington Friends at 5 p.m.

Still, considering that last season marked the first time the Riders missed the tourney since before 2008, they’re just happy to still be playing.

“We’re up for the challenge,” senior libero Lynsey Gruwell said about playing the top seed. “We’re not afraid. We’re ready to take them on. Who knows what can happen? Miracles exist so we’re just ready to play.”

“I’m so proud of us for making it this year,” said senior Summer Thomas. “I think this year we just supported each other more and came together as a team. It’ll be tough (playing Tower Hill). but I think we should take it as a challenge instead of doubting ourselves.

“I think we should take it as an opportunity to prove ourselves.”

But CR’s players also knew they had something to prove to Sussex Tech, which was making the program’s first state tournament appearance.

The Riders won the regular-season meeting only 3-1 with CR capturing the third set of the Henlopen North match just 29-27.

CR, though, took control in the first set on Thursday night, never trailing before building a double-digit lead. The Riders went up by as much as 23-10 before registering the 11-point victory.

CR coach Zach Taylor said the Riders haven’t played better than that all season.

“I told the girls today, they get to decide what the headline’s going to be for tomorrow,” said Taylor. “They did about as well as I could have asked for them to do.

“Defensively, they played with lots of intensity. They ran after a lot of loose balls. I think the energy of playing at home really helped us out. It’s nice for everybody to be here and see it because they’ve been watching us all season. To see us play our best at the end of the season is really important.”

The Ravens regrouped in the second set. They led three times in the set, the last time coming at 8-7.

But the Riders finished strong, winning six of the final seven points in the set to go up 2-0 in the match.

It was the same in the third set, with Sussex Tech scoring the first two points and trailing only 10-9 at one point. Again, though, CR pulled away, going on an 11-2 run to take control for good.

Junior Sara Cessna (5 blocks) and senior Shivani Modi each had seven kills to pace the Riders in the match. Sophomore Jazmine Stamas added 19 assists and 13 digs.

“We wanted to come out thinking it could go either way,” said Thomas. “But we came out swinging and it paid off.”

“We had a great warmup in the wrestling room,” said Gruwell. “No one could see us so we were just letting loose, listening to music. That got us fired up. When we play at home, we have so much energy to start.”

On a squad that includes just four seniors, getting back in the state tournament was a big deal for the Riders’ veteran players. Earning another match is just icing on the cake.

“That was really tough,” Gruwell said about last season. “We know we could have (made the tournament) and we let ourselves down. But now, this year, going past the first round, it makes up for it.”

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