By Stephen Smoot
Before Pendleton County’s long and epic struggle to knock off Buffalo, the Ritchie County Rebels posted a somewhat less grueling victory over season long Wildcat nemesis East Hardy. The Little Kanawha Conference representatives brought a team laden with experience, including four juniors and four seniors.
While Pendleton County mirrors East Hardy in many ways, Ritchie County relied on a solid, if not spectacular approach. They keep plays alive, hit spots precisely and rarely seem to make mistakes.
The Wildcats gave up the first score in the opening set, but established a strong early lead. Kate Hedrick scored on two big plays at the net, followed by a Baylee Beachler spike to give the Wildcats their widest lead of both the set and the game at 8 to 3.
Ritchie County gradually ground away at the lead. They came within 15 to 13, but Beachler and Gabby DePue combined on a block, followed by a big play by Alyssa Bennett at the net. A four to one Rebel run tied the game, but DePue edged the Wildcats ahead with a hit to the middle.
The Rebels shortly thereafter took the lead, with Lizzie Alt tying it at 20, but Ritchie County scored the rest to take the first set.
Pendleton County continued to battle. In the second set, an ace from Varner, combined with plays by Hedrick, DePue, and Beachler, established a 5 to 3 lead. Once again, the machinelike Rebels went to work, going on a six to nothing run.
They pushed out to a 16 to 10 lead. An Alt ace brought the Wildcats within two at 20 to 18, but the Rebels took the set, 25 to 19.
Ritchie County ran an effective maneuver of spiking the ball diagonally cross court to the middle of the far sideline. Though difficult to execute precisely, they hit their spots accurately and rarely fired the ball out of bounds. No team had performed this against the Wildcats this year. Plus, the experience of the Rebels showed in their efficiency and nearly mistake-free play.
Regardless of all of that, regardless of seeing themselves down two sets to none and regardless of the mental and physical exhaustion, Pendleton County showed their mettle in set number three.
Ritchie County opened up a wide 12 to 6 lead quickly. The Wildcats and Rebels then traded scores for a time until Ritchie County enjoyed a 16 to 9 advantage.
Then DePue spiked a ball, followed by a Hedrick block. Beachler fired two straight aces. Suddenly, the Rebels found themselves reeling and called a time out up 16 to 13.
Pendleton County kept coming, unwilling to concede. Breena Bowers’ accurate and powerful serves helped her team to close the gap to one. The Rebels scored two to extend the lead to 20 to 17. Alt then tapped the ball to the middle, followed by a Rebel error to set the score at 20 to 19.
A Varner set of a Beachler shot later closed the score to 24 to 21, but the Rebels prevailed on the next play.
Though the team did not accomplish all they wished, they did score a major coup over a powerful opponent. Assistant Coach Madison Day praised the team’s leaders and how they impacted the younger players who had never experienced a Charleston playoff atmosphere. “The returners did a good job of keeping our newbies contained,” she noted.
The “newbies” contributed mightily to the big win. Carolyn Varner, Bowers, Bennett, and Emma Hartman gave their team reliable play through serves, plays at the net, and holding down the back line. Nerves showed at times, but they rebounded, adjusted, and performed admirably.
Alt and Beachler gave possibly their best games of the year. They played both the back and front lines almost flawlessly, channeling their aggressive styles effectively.
Of the three seniors, Hedrick, DePue, and Allie Cooper, Coach Rod Cooper said, “It will be hard to replace them. They’re great girls. They bring a lot to the table.”
Cooper remained relentless in playing the back line and playing exceptional defense. DePue and Hedrick showed a knack through the entire post season of making big plays to stop scoring runs by opponents. “We will have to work hard through the spring and summer to fill their shoes,” their coach praised.
With the pieces coming back, Wildcat volleyball gives the area a lot to get excited about in 2024.