Hours and hours of sprints and drills and long bus rides and even longer practices came down to five points Thursday night for Polk County and Hendersonville to decide the Western Highlands Conference regular-season championship.
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All five fell Hendersonville’s way – and Polk County’s reign as WHC champions came to an end.
The Bearcats eked out a 20-25, 25-22, 25-21, 24-26, 15-10 victory after two emotional hours of volleyball played at an extremely high level. So even was the showdown between the two rivals, playing as conference competitors for the final time before Hendersonville leaves the WHC next season, that as the teams stood deadlocked 10-10 in the fifth set, total points for the match were also even at 104-104.
Dead level, five points to determine a conference champion.
Hendersonville (14-8, 11-1) inched ahead 11-10, then came perhaps the key moment of the set. During a play at the net, a Bearcat player collided with Polk County’s Ansley Lynch as a Hendersonville shot sailed out of bounds. As players rushed to check on the duo, officials called a line violation on Lynch, negating the errant shot and giving Hendersonville the point and a 12-10 lead. Despite Polk County’s protests that Lynch didn’t initiate the contact, the call stood.
Hendersonville’s Shannon Lewis followed with a kill for a 13-10 lead, and the Bearcats completed their five-point run moments later.
Polk County (16-6, 10-2) defeated Hendersonville two years ago in the final regular-season meeting to earn a share of the WHC title, then knocked off the Bearcats early last season en route to winning the WHC crown outright. A third straight conference championship was not to be.
“I’m proud of them. I told them to keep their heads high,” said Polk County head coach Molly Hill. “They fought for it and played their hearts out.”
Neither side ever led by more than five points in the match, and each set featured key runs that proved decisive.
Polk County won the opener, a 6-0 run sparked by the serving of Lauren Ketwitz turning a 16-14 deficit into a 20-16 lead. The Wolverines finished the set with a Reagan Waddell kill and a 25-20 win.
Set two swung in the Bearcats’ favor late. Tied at 22, the Bearcats scored the final three points of the set, taking it 25-22.
Set three turned in Hendersonville’s direction with a 5-1 run that gave the Bearcats a 22-17 lead. Kaylee Schmidt and Cyrena Bedoian had kills in the spurt and Samantha Hess had a key block. Polk pulled back within 23-21, but Hendersonville closed out the set at 25-21.
The drama ratcheted up a notch in the fourth set. Polk led early, but the Bearcats surged ahead, grabbing a 21-18 lead on a Hess kill.
Back came Polk County, an Addie Lynch kill starting a rally that evened the score at 21. Hendersonville pushed back ahead 23-21, Addie Lynch and Waddell had back-to-back kills to make it 23-23. A Hess kill gave Hendersonville match point, but Waddell answered, and two Bearcat errors gave Polk the set and set up the deciding game.
Waddell had 16 kills, 32 digs and five aces for Polk County, with Addie Lynch adding 12 kills, five blocks and 23 digs. Cameron Capozzi had eight kills and 21 digs, Mireya Roman had six kills and Grace Lauer had five kills. Kendall Hall had 31 digs, Ansley Lynch had three blocks, Georgia Garrett had 25 assists and eight digs and Ketwitz had 16 assists, 11 digs and three aces.
Polk County closes its season on Wednesday, hosting a Brevard team that swept Hendersonville on Wednesday and may well be the best 2A team in Western North Carolina. The Wolverines will look to rebound there and then prepare for their final trip to the state 2A playoffs before moving to the 1A ranks next season.
“I’m trying to look on the bright side of things,” Hill said. “We’ll try to get ready for the playoffs. It’s not over yet. That’s for sure.”