FRANKFORT – Nine matches into this volleyball season was the closest Great Crossing had ever been to a crisis of confidence in its brief, successful history as a program.
Losing one of its four seniors, Alora Wilson, to a catastrophic knee injury coincided with six consecutive losses. In an autumn where merely getting to practice or play was a nuisance at times, it would have been easy to make excuses or even adopt a wait 'til next year attitude.
That was acceptable to exactly no one.
“It's really hard without Alora, but I think we eventually figured it out,” junior libero Morgan Caba said. “It took us a little while, and there were some tough games, but we pulled through. We've all played together for a very long time, and that definitely helped.”
Great Crossing maintained its hammerlock on 41st District volleyball Thursday night with a convincing, straight-sets victory over Western Hills in the tournament final.
Back-to-back champions and winners of nine consecutive contests since that earth-shaking start, the Warhawks (12-6) earned a preferred seed in next week’s region tournament. GC will host Madison Central – a team it defeated in straight sets 10 days ago – at 7 p.m. Monday in the quarterfinals.”
“The second (title) we had to work a little bit harder for,” junior outside hitter Ryann Thomas said when asked to compare the winning feelings. “This season's been really crazy with all the COVID stuff and Alora getting hurt, and I feel like we really play as a team.”
GC swept Western Hills by totals of 25-17, 25-7 and 25-19. The Warhawks are unbeaten in 13 all-time matches against their three district rivals, winning 39 of the 41 sets played in those contests.
Thomas, who is committed to NCAA Division I Arkansas State University, was named most valuable player of the tournament. Caba, Grace Brooker and Jasmine Koonce joined Thomas on the all-tourney team.
“I think she had the most kills and the most digs for us, and then you put a couple aces on there. When you're battling that hard and playing with that much passion, it's tough to beat,” GC coach Adam Ivetic said of Thomas. “I think about how she's going to college as a libero, and then just watching how she's jumping out of the gym (at the net) all night. She's just a great player.”
The Warhawks opened the match with three consecutive points before the Wolverines (16-8) won seven of the next eight to force a timeout. Thomas put a stop to that run with one of her many kills.
Great Crossing twice pulled even on an ace by Annie Pearson, then a smash from Reagan McLean, before a combined block from Koonce and Thomas and Caba’s ace vaulted the Warhawks back in front.
Western Hills rode the enthusiasm of its half of the socially distanced crowd within the wall of sound that is its unique, domed Lapsley Cardwell Gymnasium.
“We definitely had to come out with a lot of energy, because we knew they were going to,” Caba said. “If we didn't get a head start in the beginning, it could have been a different game.”
Koonce and Thomas padded that lead with more strong work at the net in conjunction with a strong service rotation from Kirstynn Yarber.
Marley Staats sealed the set with a block.
“This game I knew we had to work really hard for. That is a good team over there, especially compared to last year,” Thomas said. “We just had to all be in it. I know that we're about to go play some really good teams at regions, so I knew I had to be at my best.”
Game two was a GC masterpiece. Pearson produced multiple aces in a 9-0 run. She also was setter for several authoritative put-aways by Brooker, Thomas and McLean.
McLean and Brooker dominated at the point of attack during a lengthy march on Thomas’ serve. Kills by Staats and Thomas and consecutive aces by Yarber slammed the door.
“We've been working on serving tough and working on our defensive discipline the past two weeks, so a lot of time on blocking, a lot of time on servicing. From the service line, I think Annie had seven aces. As a program we had 15 or 16 aces tonight,” Ivetic said.
“That's not a bad passing team. That's the thing that kind of kept them in the game during the regular season. We knew that was going to have to be a point of emphasis coming into this game, and it turned out well for us.”
Western Hills jumped out to a 4-0 lead before Brooker stopped the bleeding in the third. The Wolverines maintained that advantage until 13-12. A kill from McLean and a hard-to-handle, cross-court shot by Staats put the Warhawks in front to stay.
Kaelyn Faul’s service and Thomas and Koonce’s finishes stretched the lead. Caba collected two more aces before Thomas slammed home the clincher.
“We switched back to what was working for us in the first set. I think that gave us the confidence we needed to finish,” Thomas said.
GC lost six of seven matches on a trip to Chicago during the 2019 campaign, but that 21-win squad experienced nothing like this year's early loss of a leader who had been playing arguably the best ball of her career.
“We had some five-set matches in that stretch where we faced a lot of adversity and learned how to battle,” Ivetic said. “That might be the thing I'm most proud of with his team, their willingness to battle regardless of the situation, and it turned into a lot of wins.
“We had to switch our lineup a couple times and kind of got goofy there. It's just a testament to our depth. I can trust one through 15 to come off the bench and jump into a varsity game. We're really lucky in that regard to have so much talent.”
The region bracket would give Great Crossing the chance to avenge one of those early five-set losses if it can hold serve against Madison Central. Its prospective semifinal would be against the Tates Creek-Bryan Station winner.
Henry Clay vs. Western Hills and Madison Southern vs. Paul Laurence Dunbar are the other quarterfinal pairings. Wednesday's semifinals and Thursday's championship will be played at Berea Community School.
Great Crossing fell in four sets to Frederick Douglass at home in last year's opening round. Scott County's win over Madison Central in the 2015 quarterfinals was the most recent region tournament victory by a Georgetown entry.
“We had high expectations for last year, but we just didn't execute, and I think this year we're starting to do that,” Caba said.
Thomas said the Warhawks want to keep the run going for Wilson and fellow seniors McLean, Pearson and Yarber.
“We have a lot of talent on our team,” she said. “Most of us can do everything. Everybody has put in their fair share.”