By Rob Patrick
CONWAY — The Bryant Lady Hornets were bidding to advance to the State volleyball tournament semifinals for[more] the first time ever on Wednesday. They came excruciatingly close only to be denied by the Fort Smith Southside Confederettes, who rallied from an 0-2 hole to win three games in a row including the tie breaker to advance.
The Lady Hornets came out blazing, building a 20-9 lead in the first game of the match then holding on for a 25-21 win. Though Southside appeared to have grabbed the momentum, the Lady Hornets regained it and won game two by the same score. Bryant led much of the way in a tight third game. At one point, the Lady Hornets were up 16-13. After another rally by the Confederettes that produced a slight margin, Bryant’s Brooke Howell nailed a kill to make it 21-21 to bring the Lady Hornets within four points of winning the match and advancing.
But Southside finished the game with a 4-0 run then eased to a 25-8 win in the fourth game to set up the tiebreaker.
In a hotly-contest battle, neither team could get a two-point edge until Bryant broke an 8-8 tie with a block by Alyssa Anderson and a kill off a free ball by Hannah Rice, made it 10-8.
The Lady Hornets were five points for claiming the match but Southside surged one last time to win 15-12, ending Bryant’s season.
“The girls were ready to play,” stated Lady Hornets coach Beth Solomon. “I don’t know, in that third game, if the girls thought we had it won because we’d already won two or we just let that call make a difference in the game. Obviously, in the fourth game, we couldn’t get things going. It was not our best showing by any means. The fifth game, we didn’t get it done.”
“That call” refers to a points in game three when the Lady Hornets appeared to be making a move. Trailing 7-10 they’d pulled ahead 11-10 on kills by Howell and Hannah Rice, who also added a dink. Bryant won the next point too but Southside lodged a protest. Just before the point was decided, Bryant’s McKenzie Rice had gone up for a block. The hit by Southside deflected off her body instead of her hands or arms and she’d kept the ball alive off the ricochet. Moments later, an error by Southside ended the rally.
But when Southside protested, the officials got together to discuss the play and the point was reversed. They ruled that it was a double-hit by Rice. But, instead of playing the point over, as is often the case after a mid-rally error was ruled, they awarded the point to Southside.
Solomon voiced her own protest but to no avail.
To their credit, the Lady Hornets didn’t seem to let it affect them initially. They broke serve on a hit by McKenzie Rice then, with Anderson serving, she got another kill and, with a hitting error by Southside, the Bryant lead grew to 14-11.
A kill by the Confederettes’ Payton Hamilton broke serve and it became a nip-and-tuck game that the Lady Hornets still led 18-16 with a kill from Breanna White creating the two-point edge.
Blocks by Drew Jones and Elise Harpenau brought Southside even and the teams traded points until Southside’s late surge which included points off blocks by Hamilton for points 23 and 24 then an ace by Presley Van Kooten to end the game.
“That was a game changer,” Solomon said of the controversial call. “The way I understand the rule is you can block and hit it again. Unfortunately that’s not the way they saw it. I felt like our girls should’ve used that as a turning point for us, to start playing a little bit harder. But I don’t think we did. I think we let it change us in a negative way.”
Southside rode the momentum to a 13-2 start in game four. The Lady Hornets were unable to get a run going but, given a fresh start in the fifth game, they got back on track. In fact, the Conway team, conference rivals, were helping to cheer Bryant in the tiebreaker, which started with a kill from McKenzie Rice. The game was tied at 2, 3, 4, 5 and 6 before either team could put together back-to-back points. Anderson’s kill tied it at 6 and, after a hitting error by the Confederettes, Howell’s kill made it 8-6 and forced a Southside timeout.
A block by Jones and a kill by Taylor Hamilton knotted it at 8 but that’s when Anderson’s block and Hannah Rice’s kill pushed Bryant to the 10-8 lead. Southside scored the next four points to take a two-point lead. A hitting error had Bryant within 11-12 with the serve. Though a service error cost them, the Lady Hornets appeared to have countered when White skied for a thunderous spike only to have Southside’s libero Kylie Ballard dig it up one-handed at floor level to keep the rally alive for Payton Hamilton’s kill that had the Confederettes a point away from victory.
McKenzie Rice’s kill kept Bryant alive but the Confederettes got match point on a double hit.
“We knew that fifth game was whoever had the most momentum,” Solomon commented. “You could see the momentum shift several different times and, unfortunately, it didn’t shift in our favor at the end.”
Ironically, the Lady Hornets had exploited Ballard in the first two games.
“We were kind of picking on their libero a little bit because she was kind of off,” Solomon acknowledged. “But I think that third game is when she started picking it up and we kept trying to pick on her and it wasn’t working like it was the first two games.”
The Lady Hornets came through with a whopping 16 solo blocks in the contest, led by White with six. Anderson had five and Hannah Rice four. McKenzie Rice was the top hitter with 14 kills. Howell had 10 and White nine. Hannah Rice had 30 assists and only five setting errors out of 113 opportunities.
The back row was tough defensively too. Hannah Rice had 18 digs, Lauren Reed 14 with McKenzie Rice and Taylor West 12 each. Reed was 25 of 28 on serve-receive.
Southside was tough on serve-receive as the Lady Hornets combined for just four aces. Anderson had two of those out of 16 good serves. Hannah Rice had 17 good serves in 19 attempts with an ace. Howell was good on all 13 of her serves, Taylor was 13 of 14 and McKenzie Rice was 12 of 13.
Solomon became emotional when she talked about the departure of her team’s seniors, White, West, Reed, Peyton Thacker and Alex Boone.
“Our seniors have changed our program,” she stated. “They’ve made us what we are. It’s going to be hard to replace them. But we’re going to step up. We’ll have a good group next year, just as good if not better next year. But it’s hard. We’ll miss them.”