Undermanned Montclair Kimberley defeated in Essex County girls volleyball semifinals
Coming into the Essex County Tournament semifinals last week, the Montclair Kimberley girls volleyball team was shorthanded.
The third-seeded Cougars, facing second-seeded Verona at Mount St. Dominic Academy, had lost one of their top middle blockers, senior Kai Gibson, to an injury earlier in the week.
So the Cougars were a little short of firepower in their drive to reach the ECT finals and fell to the Hillbillies, 2-1, on Thursday, Oct. 20.
MKA rebounded after a tough first-game defeat, 25-15, to take the second game, 25-22, before falling in the rubber match, 25-20. With the defeat the Cougars dropped to 15-5 on the season.
Montclair Kimberley first-year coach Kennedy Robinson said the team was at a disadvantage without Gibson.
"It definitely hurts us not having a key player on the floor at middle blocker," Robinson said. "To not have a voice on the floor like hers, it was tough."
Despite the defeat, the coach was impressed with how her team rebounded after struggling significantly in the first game. "I'm so proud of how they played against great competition like Verona," she said. "There is no question that we wanted to win it.
"We had let Verona go on some runs. I definitely think the team had climbed through it."
In the third game, Montclair Kimberley came all the way back from being down 16-11 to take a 19-18 lead after a smash from senior Samiyah Abdur-Rahim.
But Verona scored four straight points, and MKA could not close out the game and in turn lost a trip to the ECT finals.
The Cougars’ lone Essex County Tournament championship came in 2015, when Robinson was a senior and the Cougars defeated Livingston.
Montclair Kimberley hopes that having played the likes of Verona and Livingston, which ended up beating Verona for the ECT title, will help it make a run in the Non-Public A state tournament that starts Nov. 2.
After suffering a three-game losing streak early in the season, the Cougars had a nine-game winning streak before Verona snapped it in the ECT contest. "We have really improved from the start of the season to this point," Robinson said.
In the Verona matchup, the difference might have been the play of Verona senior outside hitter Patricia Rakova, who had 19 kills and whose play perplexed the Cougars, as she was able to hit the ball strong or drop it over the MKA defense.
But Montclair Kimberley's top hitter, Abdur-Rahim, matched Rakova and more with 22 kills to keep the Cougars in the contest. In addition, senior Hailey Fouche added 11 kills for MKA while freshman setter Mahala Weintrub chipped in 29 assists.
Coming into the ECT semifinals the teams had faced each other twice this season. The Cougars defeated Verona, 2-1, in the season opener on Sept. 8, and the Hillbillies swept MKA, 2-0, on Sept 23.
Robinson said that both matches had key players missing, so it was hard to gauge prospects going into the semifinals.
Just days before the contest, MKA won the Prep Tournament as it defeated Mount St. Dominic, 2-1, at Rutgers Prep on Oct. 17. After taking the first game, 25-20, the Cougars fell, 25-23, in the second game before taking the crown with a 25-19 victory in the deciding game.
Abdur-Rahim and Fouche led the way with 16 and 14 kills, respectively. Abdur-Rahim was especially deft in serving, with a dozen points to go along with six service aces. Weintrub logged 28 assists in the victory.
Earlier that day Montclair Kimberley rallied to defeat Newark Academy, 2-1, in the Prep semifinals.
After going down 25-21 in the first game, the Cougars rebounded with back-to-back wins, 25-17 and 25-18. Abdur-Rahim brought the power with 21 kills while Fouche chipped in 13.