NIWOT — Having played seven fewer matches than Silver Creek, and in fact having not played any official matches at all up to this point, mattered little for Niwot in its long-awaited season opener on Tuesday.
Behind seniors Grace Demmel and Hannah Waldron’s imposing height at the net, the Cougars needed just three sets (25-16, 25-17, 25-13) to defeat the now 6-2 Raptors — a team that had come in with a very impressive start.
Subsequently, first-year head coach Tony Engel, who was an assistant during Niwot’s run to the Class 4A state semifinals last season, was rewarded his inaugural win at the helm.
“We love Tony and we’re so happy that he got the position and everything he’s done so far,” Demmel said. “It definitely felt good to get it for Tony.”
Engel’s coaching influence was tested early in the first set as Niwot fell behind 12-7, prompting him to call a timeout to try and correct things. In front of a loud home crowd, his message to his girls was to simply calm down.
“I think that we really showed our first-game jitters tonight,” Engel said. “We came out in the first and second (sets) and got behind and then kind of had to steady the ship a little bit and get back to it.”
Immediately after the timeout, the Cougars’ calmed nerves took the next six points en route to winning the first set. Junior Addison Engel, another prominent threat for Niwot at the net, had a nice two-handed floater that gave Niwot its 22nd point before Waldron ended things with a commanding spike.
Demmel came off the bench for Niwot and found her groove in the second set, highlighted by a few well-placed spikes. And similar to the first set, junior Giselle Grier closed things with a kill of her own.
“It’s going to be hard for most teams to match our height and net experience,” Engel said. “I think that when we really get it going, we’re pretty tough in the middle.”
Demmel, Waldron and Engel were faced with a tough challenge, too, with Silver Creek junior Alex Konczalski averaging 2.4 kills per game. But the Raptors’ talented weapon was kept mostly quiet.
Niwot’s net play was made even more important when, just seconds before first serve, senior libero Varshini Panuganti was removed from the starting lineup due to a wrist injury.
“It was obviously hard for us to see her not being able to play, just because this is a game that we’ve been looking forward to for such a long time,” Demmel said. “She’s really mentally tough and I know that she’s going to get back from this.”
Niwot will head down to Colorado Springs on Saturday for a tournament at Lewis-Palmer High School, while the Raptors play next at Greeley West on Sept. 13.
“It was nice to get this first one under the belt and I feel really good heading down to Lewis-Palmer this weekend and playing a tournament down there,” Engel said. “I was left with a really nice team and the expectations are high amongst the kids as well as me.”