An old saying states it’s not important how you start, but how you finish.
It proved to be doubly true for the St. Elmo volleyball team Saturday night in the championship of its own Class 1A regional.
The second-seeded Lady Eagles made sure their season did not end the way it started – with a loss to South Central – by racing out to a 9-1 lead in the decisive third game of a 25-16, 18-25, 25-18 upset of the top-seeded Lady Cougars.
The regional title was St. Elmo’s first since 2003.
And, considering coach Elise Asher’s lineup consists mostly of juniors and sophomores, it was a regional crown that came a year earlier than expected.
‘We’re so excited about getting this regional win,’ Asher said. ‘It’s not anything I could have imagined when the season started. … My kids are so young.’
Young, yes, but not unaccustomed to big games.
‘They’re really well-tested from the time they were in seventh grade,’ Asher said. ‘They’ve got banners hanging on the walls from junior high state appearances. They’ve played in big games since they were 12-13 years old.’
That experience seemed to help the Lady Eagles quickly put a Game 2 loss behind them.
A reality check from their coach also swung the momentum back in the host team’s favor.
‘I told them that the absolute worst thing that can happen is we lose this game tonight, and we’ve had a terrific season and had some fun along the way,’ said Asher when asked what she said to her team prior to Game 3. ‘We don’t need to play with a cloud of ‘Oh my gosh,’ so just relax, exhale and have some fun.”
The Lady Eagles certainly did just that.
Timber Morrison got St. Elmo off to a quick start with a block. Justy Rothe countered with a kill for South Central, but St. Elmo answered with nine straight points.
Brooke Maxey had three kills during the run, while Megan Durbin added a block. Four South Central errors accounted for St. Elmo’s other points, and the Lady Cougars (31-3) never recovered.
It was a stunning turn of events for a South Central team that seemed to have righted its ship after a shaky opening-game loss.
‘They were real excited,’ said South Central coach Mary Brimberry of her team’s mind set entering the final game. ‘But then we went out there and went flat; it’s unfortunate.
‘We got down and our heads got down along with it. We just couldn’t battle back.’
St. Elmo went on to extend to a 10-point lead, 20-10, before South Central made a valiant push to cut the Lady Eagles’ lead to five, 22-17.
But it was too little, too late, as a Lady Cougar service error and a Fulk block put St. Elmo on the brink.
Fulk finished off the Lady Eagles’ win seconds later with a resounding kill.
Fulk finished strong and ended up with a team-high 11 kills, but South Central did a fair job containing the junior standout early on.
Fortunately for the Lady Eagles, several other players stepped up – especially junior Megan Durbin, who finished with eight kills and three blocks.
‘They really did a good job shutting down Amy tonight,’ Asher said. ‘She did get some big hits – she got the last one of the game – but the rest of our crew stepped up when they needed to.’
Durbin was particularly effective in an opening game in which the Lady Eagles led wire-to-wire, hammering down four kills, to go along with three blocks.
After falling behind 16-6, the Lady Cougars showed some life, cutting St. Elmo’s lead to 16-9 with three-straight points, but Maxey countered a S.C. service error with three-straight aces, and the host team never looked back.
South Central got back on track at the service line in Game 2, however, as Rothe served up five straight points – including two aces – during a 5-0 S.C. run that gave the Lady Cougars a 7-3 lead they would not relinquish.
Kendra Schaal helped South Central take complete control moments later with four straight service points. She finished with seven service points in the second game alone.
Asher attributed some of her team’s second-game troubles to poor serve receive, but she also gave Brimberry credit for setting up her rotation to pit the Lady Cougars’ top hitter, Kelsey Uphold, against the Lady Eagles’ ‘lesser blocking’ front line.
But, in turn, Asher correctly guessed Brimberry would stick with that lineup in the second game, countering by starting standout middle hitter Amy Fulk in the back row.
‘I tried to make an adjustment in Game 3, and it paid off for us,’ Asher said. ‘We made our serves, we got some big blocks down that we needed early on, and we got that lead and momentum we needed.’
South Central was hoping to approach the standard set by the 2004 Lady Cougars, who went on to a school-record 34 wins and a sectional title. Instead, it saw its season end in regional play at St. Elmo for the second time in three years.
‘We don’t want to play regional championships here anymore,’ Brimberry said.
OTHER ST. ELMO
St. Elmo def. Mt. Olive
St. Elmo def. Patoka
Fulk became the Lady Eagles’ all-time kills leader, as the host team swept its way into Saturday’s title match with victories in the quarterfinal and semifinals rounds.
Fulk, just a junior, finished with 19 kills on the night, as she passed Katy Heckert’s former career school-record. Fulk now has 738 kills – and a year remaining to add to her record.
Britani Beasley set up Fulk and others well all night, finishing with 30 assists, to go along with a team-high four aces.
Maxey chipped in seven kills, eight digs and two aces.
No individual stats were available for Patoka.
SOUTH CENTRAL RESULTS
South Central def.
Bunker Hill, 25-13, 25-23
The Lady Cougars rolled in the first game and held off a push by fourth-seeded Bunker Hill in Game 2, advancing to Saturday’s championship.
Uphold led South Central’s hitting attack with 11 kills, and the junior outside hitter added seven service points. Rothe added eight kills and 10 service points.
Kendra Schaal led the Lady Cougars at the service line with 12 points, including two aces, to go along with 10 assists.