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Nickerson, Vickers serve up a win for Sun Valley in district opener

Sun Valley's Jordan Thompson, right, puts a ball over the net as Gwynedd's McKenzie Humphrey defends Tuesday. Thompson led the Vanguards to a 3-0 win in the District 1 Class 3A opener. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

ASTON — It’s a good thing Sun Valley’s Olivia Nickerson isn’t superstitious or she may have had trouble concentrating in Sun Valley’s 3-0 victory over Gwynedd Mercy Academy in the quarterfinal round of the District 1 Class 3A volleyball playoffs Tuesday.

Nickerson, a senior outside hitter/defensive specialist and one of four captains on the team, usually wears a neon headband, but she couldn’t find it, so she went with a white headband instead. She did have her bright yellow Adidas sneaker, which she’s worn for two years, and her service game was on point, too, to help the Vanguards advance to the semifinals for the second year in a row.

Now, if the third-seeded Vanguards (17-6) could just get past that round.

Sun Valley’s Jessica Hastings serves in the second set Tuesday. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

“That’s our goal,” Nickerson said.

“We want to go far this year,” added senior co-captain and setter Hannah Vickers. “We want to get past the second round. We haven’t done that in a while.”

You have to go back to 2013, when there were only three classifications, to find the last time the Vanguards won two playoff games. Nickerson and Vickers were in the sixth grade and already best friends for several years.

“We’ve been best friends since kindergarten,” Nickerson said.

They were also teammates, just not in volleyball. They played soccer and softball together, but would not become volleyball teammates until the eighth grade when Vickers decided to take up the sport so she could play at Sun Valley with her older sister, Ryan, who graduated in 2017.

The chemistry between Nickerson and Vickers comes through on the court. Vickers found Nickerson several times for big swings in key situations and it paid off in a 25-10, 26-24, 25-12 victory that set up a semifinal rematch with second-seeded Villa Maria Thursday night. The defending district champion Hurricanes knocked off Springfield, 3-0, to reach the 3A semifinals for the third year in a row.

Villa Maria knocked Sun Valley out of the tournament in the semifinals last year, 3-1, which is why the Vanguards set their sights on getting past that semifinal hurdle and played like it Tuesday night.

Nickerson had 11 kills and 12 digs, and Vickers added 16 assists and eight kills. Junior co-captain Kristine Guenther also had eight kills to go with 14 assists. Junior Jordan Thompson contributed seven kills and senior co-captain Rachel DiCarlo added 11 digs in a strong defensive effort.

The difference, though, was Sun Valley’s service game. Nickerson used a topspin serve and a floater effectively to break the match open in the first set. She was on the service line for six straight points that turned a 6-5 advantage into a 12-5 edge. Gwynedd Mercy only got the lead once after that, and that was 1-0 to start the third set.

Sun Valley’s Rachel DiCarlo, left, and Olivia Nickerson size up a return in the second set against Gwynedd Mercy Tuesday evening in the District 1 Class 3A tournament. (Pete Bannan/MediaNews Group)

“I like to switch it up,” Nickerson said. “Sometimes I’m not feeling at my best with my topspin so I like to switch it up and do a short-serve float.”

The sixth-seeded Monarchs (9-12) did make the Vanguards sweat in the second set, erasing a pair of six-point deficits to tie the match, 24-24. Thompson blocked a kill attempt by GMA’s Julia Berry and Guenther pounded home a perfect pass from Vickers to give the Vanguards a 2-0 lead.

The service game took center stage again in the final set. Nickerson served for three straight points to give the Vanguards a little separation, and Vickers was at the line for six straight points that turned a 16-8 lead into a 22-8 advantage Gwynedd Mercy could not overcome.

“We went into the game not knowing anything about them because we didn’t play them so one of the things I told them to do was serve aggressively because that’s the first offensive attack,” Haines said. “They did exactly what I asked them to do.”

In other Class 3A action:

Villa Maria 3, Springfield 0 >> The seventh-seeded Cougars put up a fight before falling to the Hurricanes, 25-17, 25-12, 25-11. Senior Emily Gowman paced the defense with 12 digs. Senior Ashley Dolan set the offense in motion with nine assists, while senior Maddie Sitley led the attack with five kills.

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