By Rob Patrick
Photos by Rick Nation
Head volleyball coach Beth Solomon had her players look up at the banners hanging in the ancient[more] Bryant High School gym and pointed something out:
“We don’t have a volleyball banner up there.”
They will now.
The Lady Hornets completed an unbeaten run through the 7A/6A-South Conference Tuesday night with a hotly-contested 15-25, 25-9, 25-23, 20-25, 15-12 victory over the rival Benton Lady Panthers. It was a match befitting a championship battle. The Lady Panthers, with a win, could’ve shared the title with the Lady Hornets.
It’s the first conference championship in the history of the Bryant High volleyball program.
“That’s one thing we told the girls is, it’s time for us to have a banner and they fought their butts off and they got it,” Solomon emphasized. “They all had great games tonight.”
It actually had bigger ramifications for the Lady Hornets. The win, coupled with Bentonville’s 3-0 loss to Fayetteville, lifted Bryant into the No. 2 seed for the Class 7A State Tournament, which will begin Oct. 30, at Rogers Heritage. (Bryant, as the lone 7A team in the South, will be seeded with the West in place of Siloam Springs, the only 6A team in that league.) As conference champs, the Lady Hornets garner an additional 10 points for the ratings used for seeding — 10 points that made the difference in gaining that No. 2 seeding and the first-round bye at State that goes with it.
And, as it turned out, as soon as the Lady Hornets won the third game of Tuesday’s match, taking a 2-1 lead in the best of five, their 10 points were secure.
“Because we beat them in four (in the first conference meeting) and, if they’d have won (this time), they’d beat us in five,” Solomon explained, referring to the tiebreaker. “But I didn’t tell the girls.”
Benton, despite being denied a share of the conference title, will still be the South’s No. 1 seed at the Class 6A State Tournament at Greenwood.
The Lady Hornets amassed 43 kills in the match, led by Brooke Howell’s 12. Alyssa Anderson had eight with Courtney Davidson and McKenzie Rice picking up seven each. Hannah Rice contributed 31 assists to go with her four kills.
Hannah Rice was devastating with her serves, when she got them in. Her jump serves handcuffed the Lady Panthers repeatedly and she wound up with eight aces though she suffered six service errors. McKenzie Rice had two aces but got in 25 of her 26 serves and was on the line for 17 of the Lady Hornets’ points. Howell was good on all 17 of her serves with two aces. Anderson got in all 13 of hers and Davidson was 10 of 11.
It’s a testament to the hitting of the Lady Panthers that Bryant finished with 78 digs. McKenzie Rice had 21, Hannah Rice 17, Howell 14 and libero Rochelle Aguilar 12.
At the net, Davidson contributed three solo blocks with five blocking assists. Hannah Rice had a solo and six assists.
“Hannah Rice as usual was extremely scrappy,” Solomon stated. “Courtney Davidson has been playing real smart. She was one of our top people Saturday at the (Conway) tournament so we expected her to come out and have another big stellar game.
“Brooke was getting a little frustrated because they started shutting her down,” the coach continued. “They figured out how she’s hitting. I’m sure they reviewed, reviewed, reviewed film. She started adjusting.
“The thing with these girls is they want to all hit,” she noted. “They’re power hitters and that’s not always what’s going to get it. I know Brooke still had a ton of kills tonight but they were off the rinky-dink, off-speed stuff.”
To start the match, the two teams traded pounding each other. Benton brought the Lady Hornets back down to earth after their Senior Night ceremonies, with a strong showing in the first game, never trailing. Bryant came back by dominating the second game, sparked by Hannah Rice’s serves. With her team up 2-1, she toed the line and fired off three straight aces.
It was 9-4 when McKenzie Rice rotated into that spot. Though she had just one ace, the team picked it up at the net. Davidson had a kill, Howell had two including one on a dink, and Kaylon Wilson drilled one to make it 14-4 and force Benton coach Brandy Chumley to call timeout.
It failed to slow the Lady Hornets down. Davidson and Howell combined on a scoring block and a hitting error by the Lady Panthers ran it out to 16-4 before the next sideout.
Howell contributed an ace in the late stages of the game then Anderson ended it with a kill.
With that trade-off setting the stage, the two teams engaged in a tremendous battle in game three. Neither could hold serve for long.
In the late going, Benton had the edge 23-21 but, after Solomon called a timeout, a service error cost the Lady Panthers. With Davidson serving, Hannah Rice knocked down a kill to tie it. A hit that went long — that Benton argued was tipped — advanced it to game point and Howell’s dink after a one in a long line of tremendous digs by both teams, this time by Davidson, sealed the win and, for all intents, the tiebreaker for the championship.
The fourth game was close throughout but, after Bryant tied it at 8, the Lady Panthers gained an edge and never relinquished the lead. It was 21-19 then they put together a run to send the match to the fifth and deciding game.
Again, Bryant got a lift early from Hannah Rice’s serves. Anderson’s kill broke Benton’s opening salvo, tying it at 3. Rice then served up back-to-back aces to give her team the edge.
Benton clawed back and took a brief lead at 7-6 only to have Davidson end the roll with a kill then, with McKenzie Rice serving, Howell’s kill put the Lady Hornets back on top. When Howell followed with a second straight spike, Benton took a timeout but, from that point on, the Lady Hornets maintained a lead. Benton would cut it to one but Bryant would answer to make it a two-point lead again.
Down the stretch, Wilson came through with a crucial kill then Davidson took it from 10-9 to 11-9. Benton answered with a kill but then Aguilar, with a flying dig, not only saved a point but picked one up as the ball hit the floor on the Lady Panthers’ side.
Benton answered but then Anderson and McKenzie Rice scored on a block to make it 13-11. A net serve gave Benton a chance with control only to have McKenzie Rice drill a kill to bring the Lady Hornets to match point.
Anderson rotated to the service line and when Benton’s return was wide, the Lady Hornets celebrated their first conference crown.
“Overall, it was a great game,” Solomon stated. “We’ve beaten Benton, including the jamboree, that’s four times this year. I told the girls, I think you guys just want to make that last game just last.