JACKSON — Victories of any sort are tough to obtain, and take tons of mental grit in order to do so.
However, losses — especially five-set defeats in volleyball that eliminate a team from postseason competition — are even tougher to overcome and require the kind of grit and determination that is almost unmatched by any other in order to bounce back from such a loss.
And after suffering a tough five-set setback to Waterford that knocked Clay out of playoff contention, the Lady Panthers will certainly have to dig deep into the mental well to put away a 3-2 loss to the Lady ‘Cats (25-17, 25-11, 22-25, 18-25, 13-15) on Saturday afternoon at Jackson High School.
At the same time, however, there are plenty of positives that can certainly allow Clay to overcome such a defeat.
With 19 kills, Jensen Warnock is believed to be the first player in the history of the Clay volleyball program to ever obtain 1,000 kills — a tremendous feat that already cements Warnock as one of the school’s finest student-athletes to ever wear a Clay uniform with one year still to play in volleyball and two years of eligibility remaining in basketball and softball.
Then, there’s what the Lady Panthers return for 2018 — which include an incredible nine of its 10 varsity players, including Warnock, Lila Brown, who eclipsed the 1,000-assist mark, Jensen’s younger sister, Jaelyn, who will be coming back after missing two-thirds of the season due to injury, and fellow star frontline hitters Delanie Gilliland and Taylor Lewis, among others.
To add onto that, those nine players will represent a unit that won the Alexander Invitational in September against stout competition from the Division III and Division IV ranks — with Clay having defeated a regional qualifier in Wheelersburg and a district finalist in Chillicothe Huntington en route to winning the tournament.
For now, however, it’s certainly understandable that the loss hurts a great deal.
“In the first two games, we were tough,” Tipton said. “We were mentally tough. We made good decisions, and we executed. In games three and four, we played from behind, and got a little bit down on ourselves. That mental toughness disappeared, and we didn’t stay strong and aggressive. We let Waterford build some momentum.”
To start, however, Clay was very tough — so much so, in fact, that Waterford couldn’t find a way to stop either Gilliland or Warnock. The pair combined for an outstanding effort by obtaining nine kills, with Warnock adding a pair on her own during an 8-1 Lady Panther run that allowed Clay to take control for good. Shaelyn Vassar added three aces in her own right to help the Lady Panthers obtain the first set victory, 25-17.
Warnock, who obtained 26 digs and four aces in addition to her 19 kills for the match, would obtain her 1,000th kill 28 volleys later on in the fourth set, and OHSAA officials, appropriately, gave Warnock time to be recognized following the spike. The only recognition that Warnock truly wanted, however, was the one that came with a district title-winning trophy alongside her teammates.
“I just wanted to focus on winning,” Warnock said. “That wasn’t a concern of mine. The kills all come from the passes. Shaelyn (Vassar) doesn’t get enough credit for her passing. The good passes allow Lila (Brown) to set the ball up, and the good setting allows me to get the kills that I have been obtaining.”
In the second set of action, Warnock, along with Gilliland, continued their roll in arguably the best set that the Lady Panthers put together all season long, as the pair combined for nine kills and three aces, with the duo putting together all three of their aces and five of their nine kills during a second set performance that put Clay ahead by an 11-3 tally to start the second frame. Gilliland, who put together a strong 23 kills, 18 digs, 14 service receptions, and 10 points from serve on the day, proved to be a sparkplug for the Lady Panthers all evening, with her best set coming in Clay’s 25-11 victory in the second set.
“I’m really lucky to have the team that I have behind me,” Warnock said. “I felt like we gave it our all tonight, and I wish that we could’ve came out with the win.”
Unfortunately, the contest began to turn south for Clay in the third frame when Waterford jumped out to a 5-0 advantage behind the play of Megan Ball, who collected a block and an ace over the first five volleys en route to collecting 10 kills, four blocks, and three aces for the match. The Lady Panthers closed the gap to a 9-7 margin behind the play of Delanie Gilliland, who obtained six kills and a block and a half during the set, but a 22-13 deficit proved to be too much to make up as Clay, despite going on a 9-2 run at one point, fell to Waterford by a 25-22 margin.
“We shut down Megan (Ball) the first two sets, then we kind of let up,” Warnock said. “Our coach told us that it was the best and the worst that we’ve played in one whole game. The best showed, especially in the first two sets.”
In the fourth frame, Clay, again, battled back from an early 3-1 deficit to tie the score at 5-5 and six-all, respectively. However, a 9-2 run, which was led by Ball’s eight kills and two blocks in the fourth set, allowed Waterford to jump out to an 18-9 lead. Warnock quickly countered with her 1,000th kill just moments later, which gave the Lady Panthers a noticeable lift as Clay made its own 8-3 charge behind Warnock’s two kills and an ace to cut the lead to 21-17, but Waterford answered the run with a 4-1 push to put the game away and create a fifth and final set.
Initially, it looked as if Waterford would run away with the final set, as the Lady ‘Cats took a massive 10-2 advantage before Tipton called a pair of timeouts. However, Clay, in response, battled back, and with three kills and an ace from Gilliland, managed to close the Waterford gap all the way down to a single point at 12-11. Unfortunately, that was as close as Clay would come as the relentless play of Ball, Alli Kern, and Lauren Young proved to be too much to overcome.
With the loss, Tipton and the members of the Clay volleyball program will have to stay their final goodbyes to their two seniors, Savannah Moore and Lexie Hubbard. While both players didn’t see the most playing time, each of them proved to be strong contributors with their play in practice, which helped make the Lady Panthers better as a whole.
“Savannah and Lexie have been excellent members of our team,” Tipton said. “They may not have seen a lot of time on the floor, but they took on leadership roles by coming to practice every day and helping our team prepare for the matches that were ahead. They will be missed.”
And even in defeat, Warnock and her teammates know that there’s always next year — especially with the amount of talent that Clay has in its arsenal.
“We hope to make it to regionals next year,” Warnock said, “maybe farther.”
Reach Kevin Colley at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930 OR on Twitter @KColleyPDT