16 sweet years later, Lady Eagles soar to title
Brandon Miniard, Sports Writer, [email protected]
2005 was a historic year for American sports and pop culture. Tom Brady led the New England Patriots to their third Super Bowl victory in four years, YouTube emerged on the Internet, “The Office” debuted on NBC and the Chicago White Sox swept the Houston Astros for their first World Series title since 1917.
For the small community of Lanesville, 2005 was the year the school’s volleyball program captured its first-ever sectional title.
While the 2005 squad was built for more than a single sectional title, another volleyball trophy eluded them. As program mainstays and coaches came and went, a second championship seemed as likely as East is from West.
As the time since sectional glory reached 16 years, a new generation of Lady Eagles were primed for a chance at championship No. 2 on Saturday in the Indiana High School Athletic Association sectional championship at Rock Creek Community Academy. After sweeping New Washington in three sets in the semifinals earlier that day, the Lady Eagles confronted 20-game winner Shawe Memorial in the championship match, a team the Lady Eagles lost against twice during the regular season. The Lady Hilltoppers, in search of their first-ever sectional crown, swept the four-time defending champion Lady Lions in the semifinals to set up the confrontation.
“The girls came out earlier in the morning (against New Washington) fired up and ready to play; they were fired up on the bus with a lot of high music to get jazzed up,” head coach Adam Belden said. “We played Shawe earlier this year and lost in four at their place and lost the fourth set 32-30. Then, we played them in a tournament last weekend and (they) beat us in two games. I told them, ‘Hey, they’re gonna come out confident. They know that they already beat us twice, so they’re gonna think they already got this match already won’.”
Before the Lady Eagles could break the not-so-sweet 16-year drought, they needed to take three sets against the Lady Hilltoppers. As expected of a bout between two of the sectional’s top teams, the two sides began the match by splitting the first 14 points, neither team able to extend their lead beyond two points.
The Lady Eagles began to pull away with a 10-3 run amid a pair of Lady Hilltoppers’ timeouts. After the second break, the Lady Hilltoppers looked ready to surge ahead as they managed a 5-2 run to prompt a Lady Eagles’ timeout while holding onto a 19-15 lead. The brief break served as a refresher as the Lady Eagles pushed their way to a first-set victory 25-20.
Fueled by taking the early 1-0 advantage, the Lady Eagles flew out of the gate with a 7-3 run, which quickly grew to a 12-6 lead, then 18-9. The second set was easily the most dominant period in the contest for the Lady Eagles as they took advantage of a number of Lady Hilltoppers’ miscues, ultimately taking a commanding 2-0 match lead courtesy of a 25-16 second-set victory.
“I think we were all playing really well; we had our heads up and having fun, then we were winning,” junior outside hitter Emma Stacey said. “That just got us going even more.”
While the rush of leading a championship match had the Lanesville faithful flying, it turned out that getting the 2-0 edge was the easy part of the match. The sweep seemed to be on the horizon as the Lady Eagles again jumped out to an early 7-3 lead in the third set, but the Lady Hilltoppers fought back into the period before another back-and-forth exchange. After a five-minute delay due to rotation mixups, the Lady Hilltoppers capitalized on their 17-16 edge with a 4-1 run. While the Lady Eagles fought back to tie the contest at 23, the Lady Hilltoppers managed two more points, the latter coming on a service ace, to survive with a 25-23 victory.
The prospect of avoiding a sweep seemed to revitalize the Lady Hilltoppers as they began the fourth set with an 11-5 assault. With timely kills alongside Lady Eagles’ errors and mental lapses, the Lady Eagles’ 2-0 match lead disappeared as the Lady Hilltoppers ran away with the period 25-15.
Instead of a possible sweep, the Lady Eagles now faced a decisive fifth set against a Lady Hilltoppers squad that looked more like the team that defeated the Lady Eagles in four sets on Sept. 13, followed by a two-game sweep in the Lancer Invitational in Edinburgh just seven days earlier. Despite the momentum seemingly on the Lady Hilltoppers’ side, the Lady Eagles knew they still had a chance.
“I think we kind of fell apart as a team and we weren’t really working together,” senior defensive specialist Madelyn Smith said. “Coach was asking us who wanted it more, telling us we need to put in the hard work if we really wanted to win.”
“Going into the fifth set, I just told the girls that we had first serve and we had to use that to our ability,” Belden said. “Shawe struggled with their passing, and we took advantage of it. I told the girls that this is what we prepared for all season long and everyone had to dig deep and play with a lot of heart and effort.”
As both sides took to the court one last time, it was the Lady Eagles who snatched the momentum right back as they opened the final set with a 7-4 lead before quickly expanding it to 10-5 before the Lady Hilltoppers called a second timeout in the period. The momentary reprieve did little to relieve the Lady Hilltoppers as spectators draped in purple and white grew louder with each Lady Eagles’ point.
Finally, while leading 14-6, sophomore defensive specialist Lindsey Casabella spearheaded the final touches on an unlikely finish as the Lady Hilltoppers failed to organize an attack following her serve. As soon as the ball touched the hardwood, the Lady Eagles’ gathered near the middle of their territory, 16 years worth of waiting finally lifted.
“It’s kind of crazy,” junior middle blocker Linzie Wernert said. “We had faith in ourselves earlier, but we lost to Shawe twice this year, so we had some doubts. We were able to push through, and beating a team that beat you twice just makes it even better.”
To say this championship brought the Lady Eagles full circle would be an understatement after the 16-year wait, which included last year’s heartbreaker in the same championship game against Rock Creek. The same could be said for a number of people, including Smith, the Lady Eagles’ lone senior.
For Belden, the title comes after coaching at Lanesville for almost a decade, including taking the program’s helm in 2018. He got to hold the trophy that had eluded not just him, but a number of Lady Eagles’ alumni, including his daughters, Skylar and Sarina.
“This is my ninth year here, and we’ve had some good teams with both of my daughters playing, but I’m really excited for these girls here because they worked hard since junior high and I’m very proud of them for pushing through,” Belden said. “This is a special group of young ladies, and I’m proud to be their coach.”
Part of the Lady Eagles’ success came from the efforts of Stacey, Wernert, junior setter Devyn Oberholtzer and sophomore libero Ava Kerr, all four of whom were selected to represent the Lady Eagles on the sectional all-tournament team.
While the Lady Eagles enjoyed the customary police and fire truck escort upon returning to Lanesville, the party gave way to practice as they set their sights on Loogootee, the site of the Class 1A Regional 16. Of all the schools that have survived to this point, the Lady Eagles may have the most daunting regional of all, which starts with a high-ranking foe in Class 1A No. 5 Springs Valley at 10 a.m. on Saturday.
The second semi-final matchup includes another pair of small school powerhouses as the defending Class 1A state runner-up and host Lady Lions confront top-ranked Trinity Lutheran following the Lanesville-Springs Valley contest. The two survivors will meet in the championship that evening.