By Stephen Smoot
Back in September, the leaves were still green, air conditioners were still running, and the Moorefield Yellow Jackets still dominant on the volleyball court.
Seasons change and so do fortunes.
On senior night, the last regular season game for the Pendleton County Wildcats, the home squad swept the visiting rivals from Hardy County three sets to none.
The night started off with an emotional note as the player class of 2024, Kate Hedrick, Gabby DePue, and Allie Cooper, listened to a letter from their younger teammates. “It’s been such a blessing to play with our seniors this season,” it read, concluding with “we love you always and forever. Love, your whole team.”
As the mostly full gym and loud student section settled in, Moorefield launched the first serve and scored the first point, trying to set the tone with a hard spike. The Wildcats wrested the serve back quickly as Lizzie Alt knocked the ball along the net and the Yellow Jackets swatted the ball out of bounds.
Carolyn Varner then opened service for her team. Alt dove to save a ball, leading to a DePue spike. Baylee Beachler followed with one of her own. Then Varner scored two aces and her team suddenly led 5 to 1.
Moorefield tried to grind their way back toward the lead, but three soft Hedrick taps found open floor and the Wildcats led 11 to 5. Moorefield expected hard-hitting spikes from Hedrick, but her finesse and well-placed shots confused them for most of the game.
The visitors climbed back into the game late, going on a 12 to four run to seize a 19 to 17 advantage. Just when it looked like Moorefield would break the Wildcats’ hearts, DePue spiked the ball and Alt took over the serve. She tied the game with an ace, followed by a Beachler block at the net.
Moorefield held a 24 to 22 advantage and game point, but could not put the set away. Hedrick blocked a return, giving Emma Hartman the serve. On the next volley, Hedrick hit a ball that Moorefield failed to return. Hartman’s next serve led to a furious series of volleys that ended when a Varner tap put the Wildcats up 25 to 24. Moorefield spiked the ball into their side of the net on the next play and the set ended with Varner setting up a Hedrick nudge to the middle, ending it at 27 to 25.
The Yellow Jackets, stung by giving up the first set, surged to an early 5 to 2 lead in the second set. The Wildcats pounced back into the game with spikes by Beachler and DePue and an ace by Hartman. Moorefield tried to hold off the home team, pushing to a 9 to 5 lead. The Wildcats then went on an 11 to six run of their own.
Much of that run came from excellent serving. Breena Bowers scored two consecutive aces. Shortly thereafter, Varner had three consecutive serves with no return as well. Beachler also dominated the net, making three big plays to help extend the lead.
The pressure put on Moorefield by strong serving and pinpoint plays led to their making a number of uncharacteristic mistakes. The Wildcats never let up, continuing to spread the floor, making smart hits to confuse the Yellow Jackets, and minimizing their own errors. Late in the set, Alt fired a shot to the middle of the Moorefield defense, giving her team a 22 to 13 lead. Dominant play gave the home team a dominant result, with the set ending at 25 to 16.
This is when pressure hits. Pendleton County has spent the entire season working to improve. They whipped three much larger schools in the Frankfort tournament, but Moorefield is always a thorn in the Wildcats’ side. Victories over them are cherished, but they know how to pull out improbable victories in every sport. No one in the gym felt the game was over by any stretch.
The Wildcats took an early 4 to 0 lead. Beachler tapped the ball for the first score. On the second, she returned the ball on each of the three volleys and gave her team a 2 to 0 lead. Several of the girls played their best games of the season and Beachler was certainly one of them.
Moorefield, however, was not ready to give up. They bounced back to take a 9 to 5 lead, followed by a six to two run by the Wildcats. During that run, Hartman dove to save a shot, keeping the volley alive so her team could eventually take an 11 to 10 lead. Alyssa Bennett, Cooper, and Alt moved quickly to kill Yellow Jacket returns and set up teammates.
Through the middle of the set, Moorefield would inch ahead, then make a mistake to give points back to Pendleton County. The Wildcats took the lead late with a DePue block at the net to give her team a 19 to 18 advantage.
Pendleton County clawed ahead with a Hedrick shot to the middle, followed by a Bowers spike to put the lead at 23 to 19. An Alt spike later put the game at 24 to 20 with Cooper up to serve. Potentially, it was a classic moment with the senior prepared to nail down the set with a serve. Moorefield, unfortunately, spoiled the moment, but not the game as Pendleton County took a huge 25 to 23 win in the set and a sweep for the game.
Head coach Rod Cooper said of his seniors, “I’m going to miss them. They have worked so hard and really elevated our program,” adding that “they are great girls, great role models, and it will be hard to replace them.”
Cooper stressed that the girls must stay “humble, yet hungry” and “celebrate the win, but not overthink it” because they could face a swarm of Yellow Jackets wanting revenge in the sectionals.
Games scheduled against Keyser and Bridgeport had to be cancelled due to Pendleton County playing the allowed limit of games this fall.