JACKSON – There was a lot to be happy about for the Clay Panthers volleyball team on Wednesday night when Clay took on Reedsville Eastern in Jackson for a trip to the district finals.
Before the Panthers arrived at Jackson High School, they received notice of several award winners. Clay’s Jensen Warnock and Delanie Gilliland were named first-team district 14 honorees. Lila Brown made the second team, and Taylor Lewis was an honorable mention.
The positives didn’t end there, as Jaelyn Warnock was cleared to play in the match. It was Jaelyn’s first game for Clay since a 3-0 over New Boston on Sept. 7.
Most importantly for the Panthers, they were able to win 3-1. (21-25, 25-20, 25-19, 25-12) With the win, Clay advances to the district finals against Waterford on Saturday.
“We recovered,” Clay head coach Jill Tipton said after the match. “We had that loss with Notre Dame [on Sept. 28], and I said we’d go back and work hard, and a good team is able to go back, work hard and recover from that.”
It has been quite a recovery along the way. Since that 3-0 loss to Notre Dame, Clay has won seven straight contests and has only lost one set.
The one dropped set came in this match, as the Panthers fell in the first 25-21.
Clay opened the first set with a 3-0 run, but Eastern was able to respond and take a 5-4 lead early. Unfazed, the Panthers kept pushing and found themselves up 15-10 as the Eagles used their first timeout. Clay used a 7-1 run to reclaim the lead, and the Panthers looked to be in control.
Out of the timeout, though, the Eagles responded. With an 8-2 run of their own, Eastern was back on top 18-17. It was the first lead for the Eagles since Eastern was up 9-8, and now the pressure was on Clay.
The Eagles continued to impress, and jumped out to a 21-19 lead before Tipton took her final timeout of the first set. Out of the break, Eastern kept their aggressive play up on their way to winning the opening set of the match.
While the Panthers fell short to start things off, Clay was able to establish a key component of what was to come. Junior middle hitter Taylor Lewis showed some promise for the Panthers with several plays at the net, which would become a recurring theme for the night.
Lewis stepped up big, but so did the rest of the team. Clay didn’t hold their heads after losing that first set, and showed some mental toughness and maturation as the match transpired.
“I told them there’s five games for a reason, it’s best out of five for a reason,” Tipton said. “If you drop a game, it’s over. You step back on the court with a new ball game and a new mindset.”
That mindset paid off in the second set, although the Panthers had a fight on their hands. The Eagles scored the first two points of the set, but Clay responded to grab a 5-4 lead.
The Panthers kept pushing, and held a 12-7 edge before Eastern got a hot hand. The Eagles coasted on a 6-1 run to even the count at 13 apiece, and now the mental toughness of Clay was put to the test.
Jensen Warnock answered the call for the Panthers, placing several shots perfectly on the floor where the Eastern defense was nowhere to be found. Jensen had another outstanding match for Clay, tying the team lead in kills with 22 and recording 28 digs. Jensen also had a team high 27 service receptions for the Panthers.
The Eagles were not amused with the stats, though, as they put the numbers aside and kept pounding away at the deficit. Several plays later, the match was once again knotted up, this time at 16-16.
Clay was searching for others to step up, and on the next point Lewis came up big. On a return, Lewis sent a rocket shot back to Eastern that the Eagles avoided, thinking it was out of bounds. However, the Lewis shot landed right on the line, and the point was awarded to the Panthers.
From that point, Clay used an 8-4 run to take the second set 25-20. Eastern fought to make the score 22-20, but the Panthers powered ahead to score three straight and tie the match at 1-1.
In the third set, Lewis’ dominance at the net was the difference. Lewis was able to make multiple plays at or around the net, coming up big for Clay as the Panthers were on their way to taking a 2-1 lead in the match.
There’s a lot to think about when Lewis sees the ball coming towards her at the net.
“I have a lot going through my mind, like where to place it, where the ball is going,” Lewis said. “It’s just like a mental reaction, and it’s just what I do.”
Indeed, it is what she does. Lewis led the team with three solo blocks, and was tied with Jensen Warnock for the team lead in kills with 22. Lewis also recorded five service aces on the match.
“Her adrenaline was going tonight, and she was pumped,” Tipton said. “She played really well at the net, was really aggressive.”
Tipton added that Lewis struggled early on, but she didn’t get upset with herself.
“We brought her out, and typically they’re kind of down,” Tipton said. “She was like “what do I need to do coach?” So, we talked about what she needed to and I said get back in there and do your job, and she did.”
The play of the set, though, had to go to Gilliland. With Clay trailing 10-9, Gilliland faked out the entire Eastern team at the net when it appeared she was going to spike the ball at the Eagles. Instead, Gilliland eased up and lightly tapped the ball at Eastern, and the shot ended up falling harmlessly to the floor to tie the score at 10.
That shot from Gilliland sparked a 7-2 run, and Eastern took a timeout with the Panthers in front 16-12. Both teams traded points afterwards, and the Eagles were forced to use their final timeout of the set trailing 23-18.
Eastern would score the first point back on the floor to pull within four, but Clay closed things out with two straight points to win the third set 25-19.
Gilliland gave Clay the momentum, and was impressive in her own right as well for the Panthers. At the end of the match, Gilliland finished with 18 kills, 23 digs and 15 points serving.
In the final set, Clay kept the momentum going on their way to dominating the Eagles, 25-12. Everything came together in the fourth and final set for the Panthers, as they showed their full potential.
“The fourth set, we stayed strong,” Tipton said. “I said we don’t want to walk in to the fourth set and be lax at all, we want to return the ball with a purpose.”
“We’ve shown that we can stay tough, even though we lost that first game. Each player did the things they needed to do for this team to be successful.”
The offense was fluid throughout for Clay on their way to getting better and better each set. Brown continued to distribute the ball and find her teammates, leading the way with 53 assists.
“We can hit as hard as any other team around,” Tipton said. “If we run our offense well, then we’re tough.”
The Panthers peaked at the right time to get things done, but most importantly they came together to rally and show their resilience.
“We played together as a team really well,” Lewis said. “We all talked, and I just think we all played together as a family and just worked really well together.”
With Saturday’s match against Waterford looming for a chance for Clay to make it to regionals, Lewis hopes the Panthers can do much of the same in that match. Lewis wants Clay to “play together like we did, and to win and come out really strong.”
It’s back to Jackson County on Saturday afternoon for the Panthers, as they will take on the Waterford Wildcats at 2 pm at Jackson High School.
Reach Benjamin Spicer at (502)264-7318 on Twitter @BSpicerPDT or at Facebook.com/ReporterBenSpicer