CONWAY — To put the Bryant Lady Hornets’ challenge in the second round of the Class 7A State volleyball tournament on Wednesday at Buzz Bolding Arena in perspective, consider:
Three of the top four seeds from the 7A-West Conference had already posted victories, two of them over higher seeds as Central champion Conway got knocked off by the West’s 3 seed Springdale Har-Ber and East champion North Little Rock got edged out by West’s fourth seed Fort Smith Southside.
And Bryant’s foe, the Fayetteville Lady Bulldogs, had blitzed through those teams and the rest of the West Conference undefeated. In fact, in 14 league matches, Fayetteville had remarkably only lost six of 49 sets.
The Lady Bulldogs came in with a 30-3-1 record with all three losses and the tie coming in matches against teams from Missouri — two of those in best-of-3 matches at the Blue Springs South Invitational Tournament in the Kansas City area.
And there was no chance that Fayetteville was going to look past Bryant either, not after the Lady Hornets gave them everything they wanted on the Lady Bulldogs’ home floor last year.
So, Bryant, trying to prolong a remarkable season, had its hand full. In fact, there’s a lot of college teams that might have had their hands full against the Lady Bulldogs who wound up putting an end to the Lady Hornets’ season for the second year in a row, 25-14, 25-14, 25-21.
“Fayetteville’s a good team,” acknowledged Bryant coach Beth Solomon. “I knew that going into it. I knew that this was going to be a really hard game. We watched film on them and, granted, in the film they didn’t look like that but I knew going in we were going to have to be on our toes and be ready to play.
“And, you know, in all honesty, we had several breakdowns tonight that we really shouldn’t have had,” she continued. “And I feel like, if we hadn’t had that, things could’ve been different but, I mean, we still would’ve had to play a lot better than we did.
“Fayetteville will probably go all the way,” the coach said. “They were good. They were over our block. We were trying to adjust but we don’t have the height that they have in a lot of ways. And they’re a really smart team. I’m not going to say that we shouldn’t have played better but I don’t know if we could’ve played to the level we needed to.
“We told the girls, ‘Keep your heads up. There’s nothing to have you heads down about tonight.’ I’m really proud of the way we played tonight.”
Bryant finished 28-8-2 on the season, the most wins in a season ever, eclipsing the 24 wins that the 2012 squad piled up under Solomon.
“We’ve done a lot of really good things this season,” she said. “We’ve had a heck of a year. We turned a lot of heads. People were talking about Bryant volleyball, new things that have happened for us. They’ve played hard. And there’s just more to come.
“Most of these girls are moving on to play college ball, these seniors,” she mentioned. “We’re probably going to sign more this year than we’ve ever signed. That’s exciting for our program.
“They’ve left a lot that needs to be filled,” the coach added of her seven seniors, Savannah Shelton, Shayla McKissock, Allie Anderson, Britney Sahlmann, Kendall Selig, Kaci Squires and Whitney Brown. “I have no doubt that we’ll rise to it and our next group will fill in those shoes and we’ll move on.”
Fayetteville was led by 6-2 Haley Warner and 6-2 Faith Waitsman who each had 12 kills. Abbie Kathol added 11 kills and Hadley Spressor 6. Ella May Powell led the team with five aces.
Bryant’s top hitter Allie Anderson, coming off a 32-kill performance in a first-round win over Rogers on Tuesday, was held to nine by the tough Fayetteville front line and some remarkable back-row dig work. Riley Hill and Alex Dillard finished with four kills each, Selig and Raven Loveless 3 apiece. Sahlmann and Squires each had two service aces.
Kills by Selig and Anderson helped the Lady Hornets stay even with the Lady Bulldogs early. But after it was 5-5, Fayetteville reeled off a 7-0 run to take control of the set.
In the second game, Loveless had a kill that had Bryant within 7-6 but an answering attack by Kathol started a 4-0 surge that the Lady Hornets were unable to overcome. A dink by Selig helped them stay within 13-10 but Fayetteville scored the next six points.
Gamely, the Lady Hornets pushed out to a lead in the final set. Two kills by Anderson, two blocks by Selig including one Hill plus and ace by Sahlmann made it 5-2 and forced Fayetteville to take its only timeout of the night.
The game was tied at 6, 7 and 8 before a service error cost the Lady Hornets. Spresser served up an ace and Kathol had a kill. Dillard interrupted with a kill and Squires placed an ace to trim it to 11-10 but the Lady Hornets were unable to get even again until Kills by Hill, Anderson and Dillard plus and ace by Anderson and a hitting error on Fayetteville produced a 17-17 deadlock.
But three kills by Waitsman and two by Spresser fueled a closing run by the Lady Bulldogs.