Three game points in hand, Rugby seemed perfectly poised Monday to force a winner-take-all third set for the Blue Ridge Middle School Conference volleyball championship.
Which was the last thing that Polk County Middle head coach Matthew Russell wanted to see.
Apparently, the Wolverines felt the same way.
Polk Middle fought off those three set points and, moments later, made certain there would be no final set, defeating Rugby 25-13, 27-25 to claim the Blue Ridge championship in front of a packed gym at Polk Middle.
The conference championship banner that will soon be raised in the Wolverines’ gym is Polk County’s second in three years, the 2013 title also coming at home with a win over Rugby. It will also mark the end of a journey that began in earnest at the end of last season, when many of the players on the court Monday started their own travel team and worked with former Polk County head coach Heather Claussen throughout the spring, then labored for Russell and assistant coach Donna Hall throughout a tough preseason.
“Coach Hall and I told the girls before the season that if they just bought in to what we were trying to do, we felt like the talent was here and the chemistry was here to get it done,” Russell said. “We had to have hard work from them. We have a saying that ‘Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard.’ We had the talent, but we needed them to work hard.”
And work the Wolverines (14-1) did, no more so than at the end of Monday’s match.
Stunned by an early Polk County run that opened the match and paved the way for the Wolverines’ easy opening-set win, Rugby (12-3) roared to a 5-1 lead in the second set. The defending conference champions, guided by another former Polk County head coach, Kelly Risley, began finding their rhythm offensively, attacking the Wolverines early.
Polk fought back to tie the set before Rugby again pushed in front, 12-9. The Wolverines battled back for a 13-12 lead on a Kristen Hall kill, the Raiders surged back into the lead. And so the set seesawed for a bit.
Up 22-21, Rugby scored consecutive points to make it 24-21 and reach set point. A Hall tip and a Rugby error made it 24-23, keeping Polk alive. Following a Rugby timeout, the Wolverines’ defense, so good all season, made a brilliant save, keeping alive a ball inches from the floor and popping it up in the air for Hall, who pushed a shot into an open spot to tie the game at 24-24.
Polk took a 25-24 lead before Rugby saved one set point. The Raiders couldn’t save the second, sending Wolverine players and coaches into a frenzied celebration on the court.
“It wasn’t short of drama,” Russell said. “Down 24-21 in the second set, we felt like we didn’t want to go to a third, so we worked hard to get back into it. We told them we’d been in that position before and faced tougher obstacles than this, and they worked hard and fought back.”
“Coach Hall and I were talking before the match about how we were both so nervous. We couldn’t eat today, and we said if we were both this nervous, the girls must be on another planet.”
But Polk County had a plan to both combat the nerves and avoid the slow starts that plagued them in their regular-season matches with Rugby, both of which began with the Raiders winning the first set.
“Today, with this crowd and a championship on the line, let’s come out and hit them in the mouth and make a statement,” Russell said of the plan, which worked as Polk opened a 6-0 lead in the opening set and never trailed. “The girls were locked in.”
POLK COUNTY MIDDLE 2015 VOLLEYBALL
1, Marissa Twitty
2, Sydney Waldman
3, Meadow Becker
4, Rachel Davis
5, Kaylin Jenkins
6, Riley Cooley
7, Landry Edwards
8, Emmie McDowell
9, Sydney Metcalf
10, Grace Lauer
11, Carolina Castillo
12, Kristen Hall
13, Mireya Roman
14, Anna Mcfadden
15, Marilyn Castillo
16, Rollins Carter
17, Karla Olguin
Managers: Scout Harmon, Kylie Mullis
Coaches: Matthew Russell, Donna Hall