A dominating fourth set for GU on Wednesday forced a fifth set that the Zags dropped 12-15.

The Gonzaga volleyball team (2-4 WCC) split a pair of matches with the Saint Mary's Gaels (2-6 WCC) over the long weekend. 

On Sunday, the first set was a fast-paced back-and-forth effort with constant momentum shifts. The Zags stayed within striking distance until Gaels libero Abby Matoso took over the serve with the Zags down 17-14 and delivered back-to-back aces.

The Gaels went on to win the set 25-19. Middle hitters sophomore Alyssa Hughes and freshman Juliette Russell paced the Zags offensively with three kills apiece throughout the first set, while Hughes added 1.5 blocks.

The Zags started set two looking more confident and aggressive, jumping out to a quick 5-0 lead with two more kills from Hughes and tough serving from junior outside hitter Kennedy Croft. They made several adjustments from set one in order to fight their way back into the match.

“One, we had to serve tougher,” said head coach Diane Nelson. "But I think slowing down their outside hitters was big. We made a lineup switch too, which got a couple more kids scoring for us, and that always helps.”

GU's serve-receive also looked stronger after set one. Even when forced into out-of-system offense, the Zags hit more aggressively. Senior pin hitters Sarah Penner and Chapin Gray began contributing more to the offense in set two, with Penner leading the Zags with five kills hitting at a clip of .625 and Gray adding three kills.

“[A more balanced offense] was great because we had a ton more options,” said sophomore setter Tia Andaya. "I definitely credit that to the middles because they freed up the pins."

Set three began as another tight race with the Zags falling behind by as many as five points early on. Andaya set the tone with aggressive serving, disrupting the Gaels’ offense and keeping GU in the game. The Zags continued to tighten up their defense, allowing GU to find its rhythm to win the third set 28-26.

“The block just set [our defense] up perfectly,” Andaya said. "They funneled it right to where I was standing and then I could just work around them."

GU’s balanced and aggressive offense allowed it to continue dominating in the fourth set. The Zags never trailed in the final set, cruising to a 25-21 win to seal the match with a 3-1 victory.

Andaya led the team in assists with 39 and digs with 17 while also adding two service aces.

Nelson credits GU’s more aggressive play in the later sets as well as Andaya’s ball distribution for the Zags’ win.

“It takes everybody,” Nelson said. "It takes the pass, it takes the setter’s decision making and it takes the hitter managing her game. We talk a lot about how one feeds into the other."

On Monday, the Zags got off to another sluggish start with four service errors in the first set alone. While they matched Saint Mary's kill-for-kill with 11 apiece, the Zags' unforced errors in serves, serve reception and attacking plagued them early on, allowing the Gaels to dig out lots of hits en route to a 25-17 win. 

“The ball moved quite a bit. We just lost a little bit of our rhythm for sure,” Nelson said. "I think we know we can get ourselves out of that, I just think we took a little longer than we should have. That’s hard. It puts a lot of pressure on our out-of-system swinging and on our defense."

In the second set, the Zags matched the Gaels early on until Penner took over serve at 6-6 and led the Zags on a 5-0 run with kills from Gray and Russell followed by three consecutive attack errors from the Gaels. The Zags continued to open up their lead thanks to a combined three blocks from Hughes, Russell, Andaya and Penner.

Set 3 saw the Gaels jump out to an early 4-0 lead, but solid play from both sides kept it close. The Zags had more trouble hitting around the block, but crawled their way back into the match behind another Penner serving run. Penner’s increased offensive creativity allowed the Zags to stay close, though they did drop the set 25-21.

“[I was] just taking note of where my swings were going and dropping and then moving the ball around. So, trying to tip to different spots, testing different defenders that were struggling,” Penner said.

The Zags absolutely dominated set four, besting the Gaels by a score of 25-12 behind more creative attacking from Penner and larger contributions from Gray, Hughes, Russell and Croft.

“[Their contributions] felt great. I mean, obviously that’s what you want, is everyone to be hot so then you can move the ball around.” Penner said.

The final set was a hard-fought battle with both teams playing stellar defense. Hustle plays from senior defensive specialists Julia Talarico and Gretchen Rudel made for long rallies. The Zags survived two match points with back-to-back kills from Penner and Gray, but a kill from the Gaels ended the set at 15-13 and the match at 3-2.

Andaya had 58 assists in the game and Talarico came up with 23 digs. Penner (22), Hughes (14), Gray (12) and Croft (10) all finished with double-digit kills for the Zags.

“I wish that last set was longer because I think we knew we had it dialed in towards the end,” Nelson said.

Although the weekend concluded with a loss, there are plenty of positive takeaways from the weekend.

“I think we played really hard. We had a lot of good hustle plays, there were really great moments,” Penner said.

The Zags will next host the University of San Diego for a pair of matches on Feb. 22 and 23 at noon.

Dagny Albano is a staff writer. Follow her on Twitter: @dagny_albano.

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