STRASBURG — Clarke County’s first two trips to Strasburg during the high school volleyball season ended with the Eagles on the wrong end of the scoreboard. When it mattered most, however, the Eagles came through.
One week after falling in four sets to the Rams in the quarterfinal round of the Bull Run District tournament, Clarke County swept Strasburg 25-23, 25-16, 25-23, in the Region 2B quarterfinals on Thursday. The win sends the No. 6 Eagles into next Tuesday’s regional semifinal against No. 2 East Rockingham, which was a 3-1 winner over Buffalo Gap on Thursday night.
Clarke County head coach Barbara McCauley said shortly after her team’s win that the Eagles were motivated by Thursday’s win-or-go-home scenario.
“I think that was exactly what we told them. We had nothing to lose,” said McCauley, whose Eagles swept Strasburg in Berryville in September but lost the next two meetings. “They were winning against us, so to take that momentum was tough. That’s what we had to do tonight, and that’s a tough team, so [we were] having to try to attack the ball. We weren’t attacking it prior [to tonight] but now we’re starting to realize that attacking the ball makes a difference.”
So does taking a 1-0 lead on the road in a must-win situation. Powered by two kills apiece from Sara Murray, Hannah Trenary and Abigail Peace, the Eagles (10-12) staked themselves a 22-14 lead in the opening set.
Strasburg (13-10) rallied to make it a game, tying the set at 23-all on Kaitlyn Capps’ ace that dropped in the middle of Clarke County’s defense, but a service error regained the lead for the Eagles, who finished off the first set with Bella Stem’s second ace.
“We’ve talked a lot about momentum and that’s what you have to do early and set the tone, so that’s what we were striving for,” McCauley said of winning the opening game.
Riding that momentum, and benefiting from a shock to Strasburg’s confidence, Clarke County cruised to a 25-16 win in the second set while outscoring the Rams 18-9 after the set was tied 7-7.
The Rams were down two players due to injuries, including No. 1 setter Delainey Stickley, though head coach Suzanne Mathias-Carter said afterward that Strasburg’s issues on Thursday reached deeper than a short-handed lineup.
“I can’t blame it on that. What I’m frustrated with is Clarke came in with more energy, more want-to,” said Mathias-Carter, whose team had its season end in the regional quarterfinals for the third straight year. “I’m not gonna blame it on any kind of different personnel. Does that make a difference? Sure. But I try to tell them ... you’ve got to want and demonstrate heart at that point.
"And I felt like we were just flat. We were flat from when I walked in to set up the gym to the end there. I mean there was a little bit of life there in the third set when we kind of talked about that we were at a do-or-die point, so I saw a little life but then it was just like it deflated.”
Strasburg played its best volleyball in the third set as the Rams finally got senior Lauren Nofsinger into a rhythm on offense and took an early 11-3 lead. Clarke County answered with the first of two Game 3 rallies, as two aces from Stem, two aces and a kill from Trenary and back-to-back kills by Murray fueled a run that gave the Eagles a 16-15 lead.
That advantage reached 18-15 after Stem’s block on a 50-50 ball at the net following a Clarke County serve, but the Rams got two aces from Gracie McDonald —who spurred Strasburg’s late rally in the first set with a long run from the service line — and four kills and a block from Nofsinger to take a 23-19 lead.
Trenary’s seventh kill of the night gave serve back to Clarke County, and another kill from Stem pulled the Eagles within two. Three straight aces from senior Liz Wallace followed to give Clarke County a 24-23 lead, and the match ended when Nofsinger was whistled for a net violation as she hustled to track down an errant pass on Wallace’s fifth serve of the decisive run.
“We do that a lot, so we know how to rally,” McCauley said of playing from behind. “We know how to come from behind to get up, and so I think that’s been a benefit for us. You learn to come back from that big hole, so it makes a big difference. I’m very proud of them for using it for good and not evil.”
Murray finished with six kills for Clarke County, Stem had four kills and seven aces and Wallace had four kills and five aces. Trenary added two aces to her team-high seven kills, and Alyssa Hoggatt had 21 assists.
Clarke County’s regional semifinal match on Tuesday will be for a state tournament berth. East Rockingham beat Clarke County twice in the regular season, including a sweep in Elkton and a four-set victory in Berryville in their most recent meeting on Oct. 24.
“They’ve got big attackers and they’re scrappy, so it’s just looking at what they’ve got and making sure that we’re evenly matched,” McCauley said. “If we bring the game that we played tonight as far as attacking the ball and moving, then I think that we’ll be competitive against them.”