By Stephen Smoot
As veteran broadcaster Chris Berman used to say about upsets by the lowest seeded team of the highest, “it’s why they play the game.”
Buffalo came into the opening round against Pendleton County with a staggering 42 wins and had no regular season losses since Oct. 12. They shared two opponents with the Wildcats – Frankfort and North Marion. Both schools won two sets to none against those teams.
The Bison advanced to the state title game last year, while the Wildcats fell in the first round to the Bisons. Neither would see the same results in 2023.
Pendleton County and Buffalo played the second game of the day on the single A court, after watching East Hardy fall to Ritchie County three sets to one. Carolyn Varner opened the game by serving an ace, also serving notice that the Wildcats chose to not put much stock in tournament seedings.
Gabby DePue followed up with a block and the Bison hit two balls out of bounds to give the Wildcats an early 4 to 0 lead. Buffalo cut the lead in half, but another DePue block and a tip by Baylee Beachler helped to give their team a 7 to 2 lead.
Sensing trouble, Buffalo quickly called time out.
Throughout the first set, Buffalo tried to push back into the game. Pendleton County continued to hold them at arms’ length. Blocks by DePue and Kate Hedrick, followed by a Beachler ace, put the lead at seven and threatened to blow the game wide open, but Buffalo stubbornly inched back.
They came within two, with the Wildcat lead at 16 to 14. Head coach Rod Cooper called a timeout. Beachler scored a spike, followed by a Lizzie Alt ace to push the lead back to four. Late in the set, Alyssa Bennett gave her team a 23 to 19 lead with a spike, then Buffalo committed two errors, allowing the first crucial set to go to the Wildcats.
Both crowds stayed active and raucous the entire time. The Bisons brought several rows worth of students while the Wildcats enjoyed support from students and parents.
In the second set, the Wildcats took the initial point with a spike by Alt. Varner followed with an ace. Buffalo quickly knotted the game at two, then forged a 5 to 3 lead. Hedrick made two key plays at the net to tie the game at seven. Buffalo earned a point, then a Bennett spike tied it again.
The Wildcats took a slender lead, but could not put distance between themselves and the Bison. Late in the set, Buffalo took the lead with precise serving, opening up a four point lead, then winning the set by five.
In the third set, Buffalo seized the momentum early, taking a 2 to 0 lead. Beachler scored on two spikes and an ace to tie the game at three. Shortly after, Hedrick made a block at the net to take a 5 to 4 lead.
The Bison tied the game at eight, then saw the Wildcats surge ahead with a five to nothing run. Shortly after, a Varner ace to the back line gave her team a six point advantage. Buffalo quickly closed within two, but a DePue hit to the back line, followed by a Hedrick block widened the comfort zone for the Wildcats.
Late in the set, Alt smashed a spike to the back line for a 23 to 18 lead. A Beachler tap gave the Wildcats the set win at 25 to 19.
In the fourth set, Pendleton County scored first, but the Bison showed why they were the number one seed. Though the Wildcats took a 4 to 2 lead, the Bison stampeded back and opened a 12 to 6 advantage.
Pendleton County players sacrificed themselves the whole game. Allie Cooper, Emma Hartman, and Breena Bowers patrolled the back line relentlessly, diving when needed. Cooper dove late in the game and hit the ground hard, but bounced up, shook off the pain, and played as if it never happened.
The back line players kill the spikes and shots fired hard at them. They keep volleys alive to set up the big spectacular plays on the front line. Just as a quarterback and running back need the guys working hard up front, volleyball players at the net rely on the hustle of those fighting for every ball behind.
Later, the Wildcats clawed back within one as Varner set up a vicious Beachler spike to put the score at 15 to 14, Bison lead. They continued to build the lead and won the set by seven.
This set up the decisive fifth contest. With all other second round games completed, the dueling chants of Wildcat and Bison fans reverberated throughout the Charleston Civic Center Coliseum.
Carl Holcomb, Moorefield Examiner sports editor, stayed around after the East Hardy loss and even donned Pendleton County colors in a show of South Branch solidarity, cheering alongside the Wildcat faithful.
“Last year, we were just happy to be here,” Coach Cooper explained later in the day. This year, he said, “the girls knew why we were here. They came with a purpose.”
They showed that purpose in set number five
Varner led off with an ace, followed by a Beachler shot to the back line. The two point lead soon turned into a 4 to 2 deficit, but the Wildcats kept their claws out. Two Buffalo errors tied the game at four.
Pendleton County took the lead as two back line players dove and popped the ball up, leading to a well-placed Alt hit to the middle and a score. Hedrick followed with two blocks to set the lead at eight to five.
Buffalo called time out, seeing their season slipping away. They tried to right their ship, coming back within one, but DePue fired a spike off the outstretched hands of a defender.
Buffalo scored again to set the game at 9 to 8. They then committed an error, followed by a timely ace from Bowers to put the score at 11 to 8. Varner then set up a powerful Hedrick spike. Cooper took the serve.
A Varner set of a Beachler spike put the score at 14 to 11 and a Buffalo error ended the set, the game, and the Bison’s season.