Between Blacksburg’s Alana Turk and Western Albemarle’s Adriana Bland, it felt like every seemingly-sure kill was just going to come back up.
“That’s our main focus, we’re noticed for our defense but Western Albemarle’s libero (Bland) was intense,” said Blacksburg coach Nicole Kessner. “I don’t think we’ve ever played someone who’s defense mimicked ours so much.”
The two liberos waged a long war of digs in the Region 3A West semifinals, and while Bland gained a slight edge in the total digs department with 38 to Turk’s 35, Blacksburg edged the Warriors 3-2, clinching a Group 3A state final four berth. It left the Warriors just one win short of the state tournament for the second straight season.
“I think there were quite a few people who thought this was going to be a down year for us, a rebuilding year, but it didn’t take long to find out that this team was going to put up a lot of fight and was going to be successful,” said Western Albemarle coach Ron Pack.
The Warriors dropped game one 25-22 before rallying to win game two by the same score. Blacksburg took a huge game three 25-20, but the Warriors refused to go quietly, winning game four 25-23.
“They showed how much heart they had and how much fight they had,” Pack said. “They gave everything they had and if they give everything they had then we’ll take the result.”
The result wasn’t what the Warriors wanted of course, but it was a big-time effort despite the fact that senior hitter Alema Atuaia suffered an injury in game four. Ellie Bright filled in well and made some big defensive plays for the Warriors, but Western was clearly lacking some offensive firepower in game five as Blacksburg pulled away 15-11 to earn the state final four berth and a shot at the region crown later this week.
The Bruins kept battling the entire game too, making play after play including a big effort at the net where Maya Stephens had 12 kills to go with nine blocks. Hannah Mertes finished with 11 kills and 13 digs. Emma Phillips and Catherine Walters combined for 47 assists for the Bruins, with Phillips also notching 17 digs while Walters had 14 digs on the night.
“That’s our motto, just make plays,” Kessner said. “We had to readjust, (Western’s) hitters did a really good job of kind of pointing out our flaws but once we went back and redid our fundamentals a little bit it looked better.”
Olivia Nichols notched 17 kills to lead the Warriors in that department with Courtney Berry’s 16 kills just one step behind. Cassidy Wilson also had a big night with 10 kills. Andrea Vial finished with 49 assists. Bland wasn’t the only one functioning in the digs department either, Nichols and Vial each had 18 digs and Hailey McDaniel had 16 digs.
The loss ends the careers of several longtime contributors for the Warriors, led by Berry and Nichols.