Times Sports Editor
SWITZ CITY -- The Clay City volleyball program suffered from the worst form of déjà vu on Saturday evening in the Class A White River Valley Sectional championship game.
The Eels squared off against the North Central Thunderbirds, a team that they went five games with in the regular season, winning the first two sets before falling in the final three to take the loss.
In the title game, a contest quite familiar to the Eels' program, the T-Birds dealt Clay City another stinging loss, rallying from behind two games to none to take a 26-28, 13-25, 25-18, 25-12, 15-10 sectional championship win.
Perhaps even worse is that the Eels have reached the title game in four of the last five seasons and have lost each time.
The first two and a half games couldn't have looked any different than the final half of the match as Clay City played about as well as they could in scoring victories to take a commanding two-game lead. However, Clay City coach Lu Anne Anderson cautioned her team not to let up.
"I thought the first two games, I was thinking 'Wow these girls are energized, they are in the game.' Now let's credit North Central, they gave us a lot of points in the second game. I made the girls aware of that and I cautioned them not to overlook that," Anderson said. "I said, expect a battle."
And North Central gave the Eels just that, a battle to the end.
Clay City led 10-6 in game three and was on the precipice of tasting the sweetness of a sectional championship, but midway through that third game, the T-Birds seemed to put it all together.
From there, Crooks served up an ace and back-to-back hitting errors by the Eels set up another ace and kills from Bree Higginbottom and Hannah Randolph.
Suddenly North Central was on top 16-11 and a long rally that went to the T-Birds seemed to cement the momentum swing. North Central found their hitting stroke and attacks that Clay City was digging during the first two games were suddenly finding the court.
Asie Jeffers ended the rally with a kill for the Eels, but North Central led 18-12. Clay City got a kill and a tip from Lynsey Higgins to get within 18-14, but Higginbottom nailed down another attack and a cross court kill that skimmed along the net from Randolph gave North Central a 25-18 win to narrow the match lead by the Eels.
"What happened was, our intensity dropped a little bit, I think fatigue played a little bit of a factor going five (games), but we're not going to blame it on that. I mean our passing went away. That's what killed us right there, when we can't serve receive and pass to target, that's when we can't take swings. That was the difference in the game.
"In the first two games we served very aggressively, we hit the zones and we hit the people we wanted to hit," Anderson continued regarding the swing in momentum. "I think as a result of that, (North Central) didn't get good passes and they didn't get good sets and you could tell a big difference. Now, credit their passers for that, games three, four and five, they gave them good passes off of our serves and they were able to take those nice swings."
And North Central's swing were big as North Central went to the powerful Higginbottom as much as possible and the Eels weren't able to get as many touches on her swings as they did in the first two games.
The T-Birds continued their energy into game four, taking a 9-5 lead after a kill from Megan Stone. Clay City got back to 10-7, but Higginbottom added two kills and a another hitting error by the Eels broke the lead out to 14-8. Higgins scored a kill for the Eels to break the streak, but North Central scored 10 of the final 14 points to even the match.
In the final game to 15, Clay City fell behind 3-1, but aces by Callie Dayhuff evened the score. At the halfway point, North Central held a tenuous 8-6 advantage, but Higginbottom drilled another kill, Clay City's Shelby Hane sent an attack long and the Eels were called for a carry on the next serve. Suddenly North Central held an 11-6 lead.
Clay City got back to 14-10 on a block by Asie Jeffers, a kill by Higgins and a T-Birds hitting mistake, but Higginbottom followed with a tip to end the Eels' comeback hopes.
"We called timeouts, tried to motivate, they gave their all, they did everything they could. It's just terrible that it didn't turn out our way," a disappointed Anderson commented.
"We went on a couple of runs for one or two points, but we couldn't put anything together," Anderson said. "In the game of volleyball you have to have a momentum shift, when it shifts the wrong direction you have to do everything you can to claw your way out of it. We tried, it just didn't happen for us tonight."
The Eels end the season at 15-15 overall with four seniors playing their final volleyball games for Clay City. Higgins had nine kills, four blocks and six digs and Olivia Schindler posted 17 assists to go with Hanes' six kills and four blocks. LaKyla Cook is the final senior for the Eels.
Brielle Drelick had 10 kills and 12 digs, Jeffers had three kills and three assists, Stevenson had 20 assists and five digs with Chloe Kittle providing five digs.
North Central advances to face the winner of the North Daviess Sectional, either Barr-Reeve or Loogootee in Tuesday's regional.
Class A White River Valley Sectional