SOUTH WEBSTER — Sometimes — even often times — when youth meets the tournament trail for the first time, there’s a jittery awkwardness which tends to take hold.
For the South Webster Lady Jeeps, those anxious moments only lasted the opening points of all three games on Thursday.
That’s because the top-seeded but young Lady Jeeps made short work of the visiting Belpre Golden Eagles, sweeping Thursday’s Division IV sectional championship tilt 25-16, 25-11 and 25-15 to advance to their first district volleyball tournament since 2016.
For those with a short memory, South Webster won 14 sectional titles in a row — up until two years ago.
SWHS coach Darcee Claxon said it was not only good to “get back on track”, but play well as well — especially against an outmatched opponent which was making its second trip to Scioto County within four days.
The Golden Eagles earned the sectional title date with the Jeeps by sweeping Green in three games on Monday.
South Webster, which was one of only two teams to defeat 20-triumph and Division II top-seed Vinton County, wanted to look sharp and not sloppy against Belpre.
For the overwhelming majority of the match, the Jeeps did just that.
In the opening two sets, the Lady Jeeps dropped the opening point, but quickly rebounded — and coasted to easy wins.
The ninth-seeded Golden Eagles then jumped out to a 3-0 advantage in the third game, and reversed a 5-3 South Webster advantage to lead 9-8 on a kill and ace by Halee Williams.
But for Belpre, as Newfound Glory once sang, it was all downhill from here.
The Lady Jeeps scored 17 of the final 23 points to complete the sweep, raise their impressive record to 18-5, and most importantly return to the district semifinals at Jackson High School.
“A sectional championship gives a group like this, especially a young squad such as this, momentum to build on in the tournament and important experience. It was nice to get this win at home and in front of a good crowd,” said Coach Claxon. “We’ve said this all year long, but we are always asking ourselves what’s our purpose here. What’s our goal tonight? I think you can scout and do those things and help prepare your team as much as possible, but at the end of the day, your players have to show up and do the job. That’s what we’ve been talking a lot about.”
What the Lady Jeeps did on Thursday was combine for 37 kills, as all six of their servers served up at least one ace.
Sophomore hitter Faith Maloney — as she often does — led the way in kills and even digs, as she amassed a match-high 14 kills, while delivering a dozen digs in a strong front-row to back-row performance.
Claxon said Maloney’s all-around play spearheads South Webster’s other players.
“For a sophomore, Faith has a lot of weight on her shoulders. But she always comes up with big plays. In the front row and the back row. From the service line. She plays good defense. But I also believe that opens it up for the rest of our hitters,” said the coach. “The block has to stay on her. They have to respect her, which allows our other hitters to do some really good things too. It was a nice balanced offense tonight.”
Maloney, Kendall Bender and Gracie Claxon each served up three aces, as Bri Claxon’s four aces paced the Lady Jeeps.
Mack Keller and Gwen Messer managed two aces apiece, as Bri Claxon set for 18 assists — with Bender adding another eight.
Messer with seven kills, Bri Claxon with six and Keller with five chipped in offensively, as Natalie Adkins and Rylie McGraw had two kills apiece.
“We were moving the ball around, making them (opponent) move, and I leave it up to the girls when they go back to serve to look and see what is open and attack it,” said Coach Claxon. “I want our girls to take some ownership and have some volleyball IQ as well. I think they do a good job of that.”
Bri Claxon, McGraw and Adkins each had a solo block.
Gracie Claxon and Bender both collected nine digs, while Messer mustered five.
Maloney recorded several first-set kills, as three of Keller’s kills extended the Jeeps’ early advantage to 16-5 — before Belpre scored six consecutive points to get within 16-11.
South Webster bounced right back though, winning nine of the final 14 points for the 25-16 triumph.
The second set was never in doubt, as the Jeeps’ leads of 24-10 and the 25-11 final were their largest.
The Jeeps also forced the Golden Eagles to call six timeouts — a pair in each game.
“Sometimes we are a little lax, and that is very dangerous in tournament play. It was really important for us to come out tonight and play with purpose and play well and execute,” said Coach Claxon.
The Golden Eagles end their season at 6-18, as the Lady Jeeps return to Jackson to play Clay in Wednesday’s district semi.
The fourth-seeded Panthers hosted fifth-seeded Manchester on Thursday in another sectional final, as Clay defeated Manchester in four games.
South Webster will play Clay on Wednesday at 6 p.m.
Last season’s Panthers advanced all the way to the state tournament, so their returnees do know the experiences tournament volleyball does provide.
However, it wouldn’t be wise to bet against the youthful Lady Jeeps.
“I feel like at this point in time, it’s us against ourselves. Who is going to show up to play? If we show up to play, I am going to put money on my girls every night of the week,” said Coach Claxon. “I’m just very proud of them. Mack (Keller) does a great job of leading them and they give their best effort night in and night out. They are a great group of girls to coach.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2019 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved