After winning Game 1 by eight, the Lady Raiders fell behind 11 and were five points away from dropping Game 2. However, they rallied, winning nine straight to get back in contention on their way to a 3-0 (25-17, 25-22, 25-16) sweep of Westminster Christian at home to advance to the Elite Eight state tournament next week.
Pleasant Valley (18-31) will face No. 2 Providence Christian (36-9) in the state quarterfinals Wednesday at 9:30 a.m. at the Pelham Civic Complex. The Lady Eagles downed Millry 3-0 (25-425-6 25-9).
“I’m very proud of these girls for making it where they have made it this year,” Pleasant Valley coach Dana Bryant said. “This year has been one obstacle after another.”
Pleasant Valley ripped through its schedule a year ago, advancing all the way to the state title game where it led 2-0 before falling to Cottage Hill Christian in five.
But misfortune came sooner as opposed to later this fall. The Lady Raiders had to make a lineup change just before they hosted the Sandy Hunter Invitational in late August. That forced hitters Katherine Shinstock and Jordan Luttrell to play setter.
Following the Sandy Hunter, Luttrell went out with a back injury and middle hitter Payton Lewis was sidelined with mononucleosis. Both missed two weeks of action. As soon as they returned, outside hitter Kaylee Benefield found herself in a cast with an ankle injury. Savannah Spaulding had to fill in for her.
Their final Area 11 match against Sand Rock was the first time the Lady Raiders had their fully-healthy roster at their disposal since the start of the season.
They finished second in the area tournament, losing in five to West End of Walnut Grove in the final. Then they placed second at the Regional C tournament, losing again to host West End in the final to earn the right to entertain the Lady Wildcats, third-place finishers in the Regional D tournament, in the sub-state round of the playoffs.
“We’ve had five different rotations that we’ve had to learn this season because of injuries or sicknesses and things that have come our way that are out of our control,” Bryant said. “They were determined to show everybody that they could still do it.
So, at the end of the season, when we finally got everybody back together that was their goal — to prove to everybody that they could go on. People didn’t believe that we’d be able to make it this year because of the kind of season that we’ve had. They were just determined to prove them wrong.”
In Game 2 Thursday afternoon, the Lady Raiders stayed focused and came back from down 20-9 when they could’ve chalked it up and looked to win the next game.
“We just played together as a team. We never really got down,” said Lewis, who led Pleasant Valley with 16 kills to go along with three blocks. “We’ve been down before but never by 10 points. We just stayed intense. We knew we wanted to go to state.”
Westminster Christian coach Holly Richards said she could see could tell her team’s fortunes were about to change as the Lady Raiders continue to win point-after-point in a row.
“We’re a very young team,” she said.
“So, it’s tough for us, when a team does get on a run, for one person to step up and say ‘I’m going to end this run’. I think everybody else was waiting for somebody else to do it instead of one of my young one’s stepping up. Volleyball’s a momentum sport and you could feel it shift around 20-14.”
Julianna Kindle led Westminster with six kills.
Luttrell added 12 kills for Pleasant Valley. Shinstock had 21 assists and three blocks. Sierra Langley had 21 digs and two aces. Megan Strickland had eight digs and Benefield had three blocks.
Nick Birdsong covers prep sports for The Star. He can be reached at 256-235-3575. Follow him on Twitter @birds_word.