PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The Texas A&M volleyball team closed out its 14-day European tour with another impressive performance, taking Olymp Praha Volleyball, the level A1 defending champion in the Czech Republic professional league, to five games in a 25-23, 25-19, 11-25, 17-25, 15-12 A&M loss. It was the toughest competition of the trip for the Aggies, who went 6-2 overall playing against teams in Italy, Slovenia and the Czech Republic.
"Today we faced the most experienced team that we've ever played," A&M coach Laurie Corbelli said. "Their players age anywhere from 22-30, so the years that they have put into the game from their training and competition, you could really see that their knowledge of the game was very, very high. We felt very fortunate to be on the other side of the net from them and to have the opportunity to make adjustments against some great and very physical volleyball players."
Olymp Praha built a 15-9 lead in the opening set before A&M began a comeback. Down 21-17, the Aggies went on a 6-1 run to take their first lead since scoring the first two points of the match. Praha ended the run with back-to-back kills to go up 24-23. A&M's next attack sailed long to give Praha the win.
"(Praha) has the power, the experience and the blocking to compete at the highest level in the states," Corbelli said. "It is generally known here that they would be a top college team in our country. They would be right there in the top four or five in the nation in my opinion."
Praha never trailed in the second set, although A&M stayed within striking distance at 15-13. Praha, however, then went on a 7-1 spurt to begin to pull away. Praha later was serving for the set at 24-17, but A&M staved off two set points as Mary Batis (San Antonio, Texas) got a kill from the back row and Kelsey Bryant (Austin, Texas) followed with a kill from the right side. A&M's next attack, however, went into the net, and Praha held a 2-0 set lead.
A&M dominated the third game, reeling off several runs of points to go up 23-9. Praha's back-to-back kills put them at 23-11 before setter Kristen Schevikhoven (Centennial, Colo.) put down a Praha over pass for a kill, and Batis served an ace to give the Aggies the win.
"We got off to a slow start in the match, mostly due to serve receive and defense," Corbelli said. "We weren't really feeding our setter the type of ball that initiates our offense and so it was really hard for us to generate any scoring. But once we started to get comfortable and get our first ball up to Schevi, she worked her magic. I'm amazed at some of the things that she has done on this trip, just some plays and decisions that she's made and the things that she has been able to produce on the court have been nothing short of amazing."
A&M carried the momentum into the fourth set and never trailed. Up 20-16, Jennifer Banse (San Antonio), who had come off the bench early in the third set, got an off-speed kill, and Bryant followed with a kill off the block. Schevikhoven then aced her serve, and Praha had an attack error to put the Aggies up 24-16. Praha held off game point with a kill before Banse tipped the ball in for the set-winning kill and forced a fifth and deciding set.
"Banse came in and really held her own," Corbelli said. 'She has such great power and great all-around skills, and it is nice to know that we have an outside hitting group of juniors in the coming season who all can be on the court at any given time. If one is struggling at all, we have options, and that is a luxury that a lot of coaches don't have."
A&M held a narrow 3-2 lead in the final set when Praha scored six unanswered points. The Aggies countered with a 5-1 run to quickly close the gap to 9-8 as Jillian Phillips (Marble Falls, Texas) closed out the run with a block with Schevikhoven and a kill. Praha then got a kill and an ace to go up 11-8, but A&M answered as Banse got a kill and Schevikhoven aced her serve. Praha got a kill to go up 12-10, but Phillips posted a kill and teamed with Bryant for a block to tie the score for the first time since 3-all. Praha, however, posted kills on each of the next three plays to clinch the match.
"It was a performance that this group will always remember and will take a lot from it even though we didn't finish with the victory," Corbelli said. "Just the experience was amazing.
"Once again, Batis showed her all-around ability in this sport and was consistent and powerful. She led on the court. She was very, very vocal and relaxed and she was a great leader along with Schevi in this match. Another important player on our team right now is (freshman libero) Chelsea Ringel (Arlington, Texas). Teams are coming at her with their serving, and she's playing a position on our court that she hasn't played much. Just her poise and her consistency; she is reliable. Every single play, you know that you are going to get her very best. There is no doubt."
A&M's successful tour has Corbelli excited for the upcoming season.
"The team has gotten a lot closer on this trip," she said. "They've had a lot of great discussions not only regarding volleyball, but how fortunate their lives are living in America. They've learned a lot about themselves, each other and the team, remaining together and accepting the challenges. It has been a super rewarding trip, and I wish we could do this type of thing every year. They are very aware of how lucky they are to have this time in the gym instead of being at home this summer. It just gives us a boost of confidence and makes us really look forward to what we have ahead of us in the fall, and hopefully it will propel us as we start our season in eight or nine weeks."