Tears were flowing prior to the Vandalia volleyball team’s Senior Night match against Pana Thursday, as VCHS seniors Amanda Walton, Shelby Cearlock, Mary Davis, Tori Hagy and Stephanie Henna were recognized in an emotional pre-game ceremony.
Tears were flowing after the match as well.
Fortunately they were tears of joy instead of tears of sorrow – thanks to a remarkable turnaround by the Lady Vandals.
After watching Pana dominate in a Game 1 loss and come within two points of handing VCHS what could have been a devastating regular-season defeat in Game 2, the Lady Vandals rallied to force a third game in which they closed out an improbable 12-25, 26-24, 25-20 victory.
In the process, the Lady Vandals (23-6, 8-2) achieved three major accomplishments.
The program’s first-ever outright South Central East Division title.
An unprecedented three-match season-season sweep of Pana.
And a school-record 23rd victory.
For coach Allison Smith, the comeback and accomplishments they yielded are the byproducts of a senior group that is as ambitious as it is determined.
‘For them to come back, it’s not surprising to me, because that’s just the kind of heart and desire they have as a group,’ Smith said.
‘They all lead by example. They have set a precedent. They’ve had a drive to win and a drive to succeed and get things that nobody wants to go for – or even try for – because it’s hard.’
Hard doesn’t begin to describe the pill the Lady Vandals had to swallow after a discouraging opening-game loss.
Rusty after a week-long break following a disappointing loss at Staunton, the Lady Vandals were overwhelmed by a Lady Panthers’ team seemingly obsessed with spoiling Vandalia’s attempt at history.
After the two teams battled to an early 8-8 tie, Amy Radford spearheaded a 5-0 Pana run that put the Lady Panthers in charge for good, serving up all five points, including two aces.
Pana wound up outscoring the Lady Vandals 17-4 the rest of the way.
But if the Lady Panthers’ goal was to send a message, the Lady Vandals got it loud and clear, as VCHS came out refocused and fired up in Game 2.
‘That’s what we talked about, ‘They are not going to come in here on our Senior Night and take our conference championship away from us,” Smith said.
Despite improved play by the host team, Pana still found itself in excellent shape, just nine points from victory with a 16-13 lead late.
But after the Lady Panthers were whistled for a lift, Hagy and Henna hammered down back-to-back kills to even things at 16-all.
A Pana net violation gave the Lady Vandals its first lead since it was up 2-1 early in the game, and a Henna block, a Hagy kill and a Pana hitting error suddenly had VCHS up 20-16 thanks to a 7-0 run.
Vandalia looked like it might cruise from there, as the teams traded points until another Pana hitting error and a Cearlock kill had VCHS leading 24-18.
But Pana made things very interesting, responding with six straight points to tie the game at 24.
Fortunately, Radford was whistled for a lift on a pass attempt, giving Vandalia a 25-24 lead, and Walton forced a third game with a block-kill.
Pana remained resilient in Game 3 despite gathering momentum in the Lady Vandals’ favor. But – thanks in large part to some tremendous defense and raucous student-section support – Vandalia simply wouldn’t be denied.
After a back-and-forth start, the Lady Vandals built a seemingly commanding 16-11 lead with a 6-1 run that included aces by Hagy and Henna, a kill by Walton, and a dig by Henna that resulted in a Vandalia point.
Pana responded with an 8-2 run of its own to go up 19-18, but its lead was short-lived.
A service error tied the game at 19-19, starting a 7-1 Lady Vandals run to close out the victory.
A Walton block-kill, a Pana passing error and a Walton tip-kill put the Lady Vandals on the brink.
Then, following a Lady Vandals hitting error, Tori Hagy closed out historical night with her fifth kill of the match.
‘Amazing,’ said Hagy of the moment the ball hit the floor, setting off a wild celebration on the court.
‘We’ve been (playing) together seven years, and it was our goal this year to get this,’ Hagy said. ‘After Staunton, we were kinda down. But we wanted to beat Pana three in a row, and we did… It was amazing.’
Smith credited the Lady Vandals’ turnaround to a number of factors, including a more aggressive hitting attack and getting back into a rhythm after a long break.
‘The first game, I think it was more nerves and just getting out of the Senior Night moment,’ Smith said. ‘I thought they turned it around very well and showed what they are made out of as a senior group.
‘I thought we just kicked our momentum up a ton from the first game to the third.’
As has been the case all year, the victory was a true collective effort for the Lady Vandals.
Hagy picked a great time to have perhaps the best varsity match of her career, finishing with five kills on 13 for 13 hitting. She also had two blocks, an ace and 19 assists.
Walton accounted for 11 Vandalia points with eight kills, three blocks and an ace.
Cearlock added six kills and a team-high three aces, while Henna continued her strong all-around play with four kills, three blocks and two aces.
Davis assisted on 17 kills and was strong in her return to the service line, going 11 for 12 after not serving for several matches due to a shoulder injury.
Sophomore Taylor Parrish – the Lady Vandals’ lone non-senior starter – chipped in a kill, an ace and an assist.
It all added up to every major regular-season goal the Lady Vandals hoped to accomplish being realized on one memorable night at VCHS.
Now, the Lady Vandals have their sites set on a major postseason goal – their first regional title since 1985.
‘I think it’s possible,’ Smith said. ‘I think we can do it.’
Apparently, so did a few other coaches at the recent postseason seeding meeting, as the Lady Vandals drew a No. 1 seed at this week’s Olney-East Richland Regional.
But bringing home a regional-title plaque won’t be easy, for a number of reasons.
In addition to having to make a 1-1/2 hour-long bus trip to play unfamiliar competition, the Lady Vandals will have to overcome another long layoff.
‘We’ve got another week off, and that’s a problem,’ said Smith, whose team will open up in semifinal play Thursday at 7:30 p.m. against the winner of a 6:30 p.m. match between Robinson and Lawrenceville. ‘ Of course, everybody else does, too.’
If the Lady Vandals advance, they would likely face second-seeded Newton in Saturday’s 6 p.m. title match.
The Lady Eagles (21-10) will be going for their 14th regional title since 1989. After getting off to a 4-5 start, Newton has won 17 of 22 matches, putting together an 11-3 mark in the Apollo Conference.
Like the Lady Vandals, the Lady Eagles are a veteran team, with seven seniors dotting their roster. Junior all-conference setter Kimberlin Wallace is the team’s top all-around threat.
‘I think Newton is going to be our challenge out of the whole group,’ Smith said. ‘But we’re going to get a chance to see them ahead of time, so, hopefully, we’ll know what we’re up against going into Saturday. But first, we’ve got to get past either Lawrenceville or Robinson.’
Fourth-seeded Robinson (4-17) finished 0-14 in Apollo Conference play. Lawrenceville finished the regular season 2-25.