WHEELERSBURG — About the only difference with Wheelersburg’s volleyball season opener on Thursday was the obvious ongoing mask mandate and social distancing guidelines in response to the coronavirus threat.
Otherwise, the Lady Pirates pretty much picked up from where they left off last regular season —and even all the way through their Division III regional championship.
That’s because, in beginning their quest to return to the state tournament, the Lady Pirates swept visiting but improving Portsmouth West 25-14, 25-8 and 25-9 in the regular season and Southern Ohio Conference Division II opener.
Wheelersburg, without senior hitter Emily Boggs who suffered a minor lower-leg injury in practice on Wednesday, trailed just once —at 4-3 in the first game.
There were only nine ties over the three sets, but six of those were in the opening game —with the latest being 10-10.
From that point on, though, the Lady Senators scored just 21 more points —as the Pirates picked up the pace and intensity in looking like a program poised to make a second consecutive Final Four appearance.
“I was just happy to see those girls back out on the court and having some fun,” said Wheelersburg coach Allen Perry. “Everybody has faced adversity of the offseason with the (coronavirus) quarantine and especially it being early in the year, it’s important to build depth. Fighting through adversity is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s good in the long run and we want to have another good long run this year.”
Buoyed by Division III all-Ohio first-teamer Alli McQuay and Honorable Mention selection Mallory Bergan, Wheelersburg went undefeated for a second consecutive regular season, set an Ohio High School Athletic Association state record with 73 straight sets won, and rallied from facing match point against Hiland to prevail in five thrilling games and advance to the state tournament for the first time in school history.
But McQuay and Bergan both graduated, and now the Pirates are spearheaded by five seniors, including four who were part of the regular rotation last season.
Against the up-and-coming Senators, they started somewhat slow —but scored 15 of the final 19 first-game points to put aside any upset ideas West had.
The Senators stood tied in the second game 1-1, but after leading 4-3, Wheelersburg reeled off 10 points in a row, punctuated by a Jaiden Missler kill.
Another Missler kill made it 19-4, as senior Kaylee Darnell —the Lady Pirates’ all-time libero last season but back at her natural hitter position on Thursday —delivered a kill to close the second set at 25-8.
In the third game, West was once again tied at 3-3 and 4-4, but six straight points capped by another Missler kill kick-started a 21-5 run to end the game.
With West trailing 10-6, the Pirates pulled away by scoring 15 of the final 18 markers to win 25-9.
Wheelersburg was on display with its varsity experience, as six-foot two-inch middle hitter and matchup nightmare Kylee Barney — an Honorable Mention all-Ohio hitter last season — amassed a match-high dozen kills and seven blocks.
Ryleigh Meeker and Missler, two hitters highly counted on to replace the likes of McQuay and Bergan and now even an injured Boggs, managed seven and six kills respectively, as Darnell dialed up six.
Meeker also served for 13 points with four blocks and three aces, including on back-to-back serves as part of that third-game flurry.
“Our two middles tonight, Kylee and Ryleigh, really showed up,” said Perry. “Kylee is really standing out right now just being 6-2 and can reach up to seven feet. She had a really high point of contact tonight and that’s what we’ve been working on. Using her height advantage so well. She was putting them (kills) down pretty good. I love to see it.”
Darnell added 11 service points, as freshman Rileigh Lang replaces her as the libero.
Perry revealed that Missler made a significant difference due to Boggs being out —and for more than one match.
“Emily Boggs will be back relatively soon. But you always have to endure and fight through a little adversity when you have a lineup change, and with that said, I thought that Jaiden (Missler) filled in really well for her tonight. I was really proud of the way she handled the defense and being put in a spot like that,” said Perry. “I haven’t even actually been practicing her there, but Jaiden just jumped in and did a fine job. But that’s what seniors do and we have a good senior group here.”
That senior fivesome features Barney, Boggs, Darnell, Missler and setter Lauren Jolly, who led defensively with six digs.
“You can’t really coach experience. You just have it or you don’t,” said Perry. “Four of our five seniors have been playing regularly on varsity for four years now.”
The 1-2 and 0-2 in the SOC II Senators — which were paced by freshman Emily Moore with six kills and Eden Cline with five — should get there soon, Perry explained.
“West has a really good and talented young group. They have a lot of potential and is someone we’re going to have to look out for in the future,” he said.
But, for the here and now, the Lady Pirates picked up on Thursday where they left off.
Wheelersburg will return home, and step out of conference action, when it hosts Leesburg Fairfield on Saturday at noon.
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @BoggsSports © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved