By Stephen Smoot
The Wildcats once again had to prowl into the den of the East Hardy Cougars on Saturday, but this time they took home a victory and a state playoff opportunity.
First, they took on Trinity, a Morgantown based school. The Warriors brought a 28 and 9 record into the regional tournament, posting three wins against the three mutual opponents they and the Wildcats shared.
The initial set saw Trinity giving Pendleton County all it wanted. Early on, with the score knotted at one, Lizzie Alt served an ace to give her team the advantage. Trinity later pulled within one at 5 to 4, but consecutive spikes by Kate Hedrick and Alyssa Bennett pushed the lead to three.
Trinity briefly took the lead, 9 to 8, but an Alt spike tied it again. Carolyn Varner gave her team breathing room, serving eight times and earning five aces. Baylee Beachler added a spike and a block in the run.
Pendleton County saw the Warriors battle their way to a tie at 20. Varner set up a Hedrick spike to grab back the lead. Allie Cooper shut down the set at the end with two straight aces, putting the final at 25 to 21.
Trinity started the second set falling behind early 6 to 2, but fighting their way back to a tie at six. Gabby DePue shut down their run with a spike, followed by a Beachler ace. At this point, the wheels fell off for Trinity. The Warriors would only score six more points in the contest. Pendleton County dominated play with clutch serving and excellent net play. Breena Bowers and Emma Hartman earned an ace each while DePue, Alt, and Hedrick all fired spikes.
An Alt ace closed the second set with the score 25 to 12.
Trinity fared even worse in the third set as Pendleton County played perhaps their best set of the year so far.
Varner took the first 15 serves of the set as the Wildcats earned a titanic 14 to 0 edge to start. She had four aces in the run with big plays by Alt, Beachler, and DePue helping. Trinity countered with two straight scores, but the Wildcats took the next four as Alt served.
Alt had two spikes in the last three serves to close the set and the game, securing the Wildcats a trip to Charleston this week.
Next came an all too familiar adversary, the East Hardy Cougars for the regional title.
East Hardy has dominated the entire area, including Pendleton County, this year. They took a three sets to nothing victory to gain the sectional title and sought to do the same with the regional.
The Wildcats worked to block those aspirations.
In the first set, Pendleton County took the first three points, but the Cougars quickly tied it up. DePue tapped the ball lightly to the middle, then spiked on East Hardy to gain a two-point lead. When the Cougars tied the game again at six, Alt dove to keep a play alive, leading to a Bennett spike.
Most of the rest of the game stayed close. Nine times the teams tied. After the last at 16, however, East Hardy scored nine of the next 10 to secure the set win.
The second set saw Pendleton County with an opportunity to punch back. With Alt serving, DePue fired a spike to give her squad an 18 to 13 lead. The Cougars scored two, but DePue and Beachler executed a block to put the lead back at four. East Hardy, however, surged late and won the set 25 to 22.
A characteristic of this year’s Wildcat volleyball has been the lack of quit and pride in giving top effort no matter what. Quickly, the Wildcats established a commanding 9 to 3 lead. DePue led the way with three blocks and a spike.
Throughout the game, Pendleton County players dove after the ball, hitting the floor hard numerous times, sacrificing to keep plays alive and often succeeding. The two teams would see sometimes 10 or more volley exchanges trying to find a weakness or take a big play opportunity.
The Cougars roared back with a 12 to three run to tie the game at 15. This time, Pendleton County weathered the storm. The Cougars committed a rare mistake, serving the ball into the net. Beachler then found a hole in the back of the defense and fired a spike two plays later to give her team an 18 to 16 advantage.
Pendleton County competed furiously, playing as if the outcome in this set alone decided if they would advance, as opposed to already accomplishing that feat. Loud chants of “Let’s Go Wildcats!” filled the gym.
Bowers took the serve with a 22 to 18 lead. Alt scored on two spikes with a Cougar error in between to set a 23 to 19 lead. With Cooper serving, Varner set up Beachler for a soft tap to the right sideline. At game point, Cooper served. Alt spiked the ball hard off the outstretched palms of a Cougar player to earn the first set win versus East Hardy this year.
In the fourth and final set, Pendleton County still gave a valiant effort. Hedrick had three big plays at the net to help, but East Hardy took the set, the game, and the tournament with a final of 25 to 15.
On Tuesday, Pendleton County played Buffalo in game two of the state tournament, with East Hardy facing Ritchie County in an earlier match. Winners of those two matches were scheduled to play later on Tuesday.