Nearly everyone on the court for Western Albemarle fell to the floor as Courtney Berry’s final kill off a quick set found the floor to close out a 3-2 victory over Turner Ashby in Thursday’s Conference 29 championship game. Only setter Andrea Vial stayed up, celebrating wildly just inches away from the pack of Warriors that the team’s bench quickly converged on.
Senior Olivia Nichols was just flat out overcome with emotion.
“I wanted to cry right away,” Nichols said. “It’s the most rewarding feeling, I can’t express it.”
For Berry it was the culmination of a season packed with the hard work of re-tooling and reforming the Warriors into a playoff contender again a year after losing a big chunk of the lineup including Jefferson District player of the year Kelsey Grove.
“It was just the buildup of rebuilding this program this year and it’s not even the climax of it because we have regions and hopefully states after that,” said Berry who unleashed a torrent of 23 kills on the night. “It was a lot of energy just because we poured so much into this game. They had amazing defense and we kept fighting.”
For all of the Warriors it was exactly what they were looking for. A largely new cast of characters, but a similar result as Western repeated as the Conference 29 volleyball champions. Now Western will host a Region 3A West tournament matchup next week.
The Warriors had to fight tooth and nail to get there, countering Turner Ashby, who won game one by taking games two and three before letting down their guard in game four. Like much of the rest of the match, game five was also dead even, with neither team able to assert control as the match seesawed back and forth.
Then with the game tied 13-13 a Berry kill earned the Warriors the serve. Turner Ashby called a quick timeout just as Nichols got to the service line. It was eerily similar to an Albemarle match a week ago where a similar late game situation emerged and Nichols again stayed clear of the team huddle during the timeout that was meant to ice her.
“I know it’s mental — 99 percent mental, 1 percent skill,” Nichols said. “It’s not that I don’t want to be with my teammates, I do, but I’m so in my head and I know what’s at stake there. I knew right then I had to get that serve in.”
Her serve got the ball in play, setting the stage for Berry’s game-winner after some sharp Western defense. Nichols was trying to get the job done with her father John, usually a fixture at Western games, on FaceTime in the stands during the entire contest because of a Midwest business trip that’s forcing him to miss matches he essentially never misses. He was still on FaceTime in the postgame scrum as parents and players hugged and celebrated.
“I went up there before the game to say hi to him,” Nichols said. “I think he’s very frustrated but he’s happy he’s been able to watch. He’s been texting me all day and encouraging me so I’m thankful to have had him here even if he isn’t here.”
Adriana Bland was an incredible force on defense too, posting 30 digs on the night. Her effort spearheaded a team-wide defensive stand that was a necessity because Turner Ashby fought tooth and nail each game sent ball after ball back over that seemingly should’ve gone down for a kill. The Warriors’ hitters stepped up to fuel that performance with Nichols notching 21 digs and Hailey McDaniel coming up with 18 of her own.
“We wanted it so badly that you can’t lose focus,” said Bland, who started the year as a hitter for the Warriors but was pressed into back line duty due to injuries. “Defense is what wins a game and just to see everyone working on their defense is just awesome. When you see stats like 30 digs or 21 digs you just can’t help but think the stuff we do in practice is helping.”
Vial rose to the occasion too with 57 assists. Nichols finished with 16 kills and Alema Atuaia had 11. Cassidy Wilson was a big factor on the front line, especially early in the match, and she finished with eight kills.
“I said at the beginning of the game we couldn’t do this unless we all work together as a team,” Berry said. “It wasn’t any one person’s game, it was totally a team effort. It’s really clicking right now.”