WHEELERSBURG — If the start of the second week of play between Southern Ohio Conference teams is any indicator, the race to the top of their respective leagues is sure to be an intense one.
Returning their entire team sans one senior from last season’s Division IV district championship, the South Webster Lady Jeeps traveled to Wheelersburg on Tuesday and did something an SOC II volleyball team hasn’t done since the 2015 fall cycle — defeat the Lady Pirates.
Yes, there have been teams defeat Wheelersburg in the postseason and in regular-season tournaments — most recently Independence in the 2019 Division III state semifinals — but since falling to Waverly in four sets five years ago, the Lady Pirates’ program hasn’t faltered against league opponents.
In fact, South Webster’s 3-1 win (23-25, 25-23, 25-11, 25-19) over Wheelersburg is the program’s first since 2013 — seven years ago — when many of the girls on this year’s Lady Jeeps team were in elementary school.
With South Webster holding a 2-1 match advantage, it was Wheelersburg which took an early lead in the fourth set, hoping to take the match to a race-to-15 fifth set.
With Wheelersburg leads of 6-2 and 10-6 in set four, Lady Jeeps’ coach Darcee Claxon was afraid that her team may have gotten too comfortable with their narrow match lead — and that Wheelersburg was about to strike.
The opposite proved true, however, as the Lady Jeeps scored 19 of the final 29 points in set four to close out their third SOC II win of the year.
“Our defensive pursuit was not what I wanted to see early, what it’s been the last several games,” Claxon said. “But we haven’t had anyone try to take our head off like these guys were. We never rolled over and died tonight. We came out in that fourth set flat, which was my fear. I was really afraid that the train was going to derail and we were going to go off a cliff, but they were always able to come back.”
Following the loss, Lady Pirates’ coach Allen Perry gave credit, “where it’s due”, stating South Webster proved a team worthy of being the first in half-a-decade to end their league winning streak.
“Let’s give credit where credit’s due, and credit’s due on the other side of the net,” Perry said. “Coach Claxon has done a fantastic job; that’s a great team right over there. And when you’re playing a great team, stuff like that happens.”
South Webster held the lead for most of set one, but were ultimately unable to hold off Wheelersburg’s 11-3 run.
Whether it was nerves or complacency, Claxon said she did not want the final points of the first set to be an example of how the rest of the game was going to end.
“In the beginning in that very first set we took the game to them,” Claxon said. “As the game wore on, we just made errors. Against a team like Wheelersburg you can’t make those errors. They’re going to earn points, you can’t give them points.”
In the second and third sets, the Lady Jeeps locked in and followed their coach’s words to a tee.
Rather than sit back and let the game come to it from Wheelersburg, South Webster took the game head-on and took control.
A back-and-forth second set went South Webster’s way late, 25-23, with its momentum carrying into set three for a 25-11 win.
South Webster junior Faith Maloney had a match-high 23 kills, team-high four ace serves, and nine digs in the game.
The Claxon sisters — Darcee’s and SW soccer coach Corey Claxon’s daughters — were quite active in the contest, offensively and defensively.
Bella Claxon finished with nine kills, 12 digs and 19 assists; Bri Claxon had nine kills and 12 digs, and Graci Claxon had 17 digs, two ace serves, and finished 27-for-28 on serve-receive.
South Webster’s seniors Gwen Messer and Kendall Bender were also huge for their team in the win — Messer having six kills and six digs while Bender, the team’s setter, had a team-high 22 assists.
“We have been competitive with them (Pirates), but we have not had the manpower to beat them,” Coach Claxon said. “My girls come in, they work hard, they do the best they can. But we’ve been outmatched in size in the past, but this year I feel like we match up. I feel like we have the height and the manpower. I knew coming in tonight we matched up man-to-man, athlete to athlete. If we put all that other stuff out of our head, then we could take the win.”
For the Lady Pirates, Kylee Barney had a team-high 15 kills, Kaylee Darnell had 20 digs and nine service points, and Lauren Jolly had 20 assists.
In the third set, Jolly recorded her 1,000th career assist as the Lady Pirates’ setter since taking over for 2018 senior Abbie Kallner.
In their careers as setters, Jolly and Kallner have recorded over 3,000 assists in their Wheelersburg uniforms.
As for the Lady Pirates’ mindset moving forward as the defending regional and SOC II champion, they’re hoping to use Tuesday’s blemish as a positive — knowing it would take a good team to end their long run of the better part of five years without losing a league contest.
“I think all great teams have a little adversity through their runs,” Perry said. “This is just one loss, we’ve had teams go on and advance to state after one loss. I think we can learn from this, I think we can grow from this. We’ve got to get healthy and be able to have some repetition and consistency in the lineup.”
In the next week of games, South Webster will host Eastern on Thursday and Oak Hill on Tuesday in SOC II play — now grappling with what it takes to be the top dog in the early-season league race.
“You can not take any opponent for granted,” Claxon said. “Volleyball is one of those games if you walk in and think you’re going to win, it will bite you. It’s a game of momentum, it’s a game of confidence. You give somebody confidence and it’s deadly. We need to go into every game with confidence in our teammates and in ourselves and the work we’ve put in.”
Throughout an offseason of uncertainty, the Lady Jeeps have put in the work and their potential for greatness is showcasing itself in the early stages of their season.
“We were shut down for awhile and we didn’t know whether we were going to get to play, but these girls have been in the gym since June 1,” Claxon said. “They want it; they’re hungry for it.”
Reach Jacob Smith at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1930, by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or on Twitter @JacobSmithPDT © 2020 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved