SOUTH WEBSTER — Perhaps first-set stunned by the new-look Wheelersburg Pirates, the experienced, talented and highly-touted Jeeps —spearheaded by senior strong hitter Faith Maloney —decided to take matters into their own hands.
With pinpoint serves, and emphatic spikes.
That’s because the standout Maloney — in addition to her usual evening at the office and match-high 18 kills — amassed 10 aces and served seven straight second-set points, as host South Webster went on and captured a key Southern Ohio Conference Division II volleyball match on Thursday night in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
After the Pirates pitched a rally for the 28-26 overtime triumph in the opening game, the Jeeps won the final three sets with actual ease — sweeping those games by counts of 25-15, 25-14 and 25-19.
While Wheelersburg, with only one returning starter in senior middle hitter Ryleigh Meeker, was playing its season opener on Thursday —the Jeeps, the defending Division IV Region 15 runner-up, remain undefeated at 3-0.
The Pirates’ scheduled season opener against West was postponed on Tuesday, as South Webster swept its season opener over Notre Dame on Saturday —before winning over league foe Waverly in three games.
The Jeeps and Pirates shared the SOC II championship last season, with Wheelersburg winning at least a share of its seventh consecutive conference title —although the 2021 Pirates, following four straight Division III district crowns, are significantly impacted by heavy graduation losses.
South Webster, meanwhile, which won its sixth all-time division championship but first since 2011 as part of a three-in-five year (2007, 2008 and 2011) span — returns most of its power-hitting, precision-passing, and hard-digging roster.
The headliner, of course, is Maloney —a Division IV all-Ohio Honorable Mention honoree a year ago.
She has been the centerpiece of the Jeeps’ back-to-back district championships, and simply spikes the ball in a downward motion that’s like a boulder barreling downhill.
With the Jeeps leading 7-3 in the second set, Maloney made for seven straight service points —four of which were aces as South Webster opened up a 14-3 advantage in which Wheelersburg was only able to reduce in half (19-13 and 20-14).
Bri Claxon then served for seven straight points to open the third game, as part of a 9-1 lead —with Maloney adding four more kills as part of those nine counters, and the Pirates getting only as close as 14-10.
Finally, in the fourth set, Maloney’s six service points with four more aces erased a 5-2 Jeep deficit into a 9-5 cushion —as she then put down three thunderous consecutive kills, part of an 8-3 run to end the match.
At that point, Wheelersburg was charging back and to within 17-16, before Maloney flipped the switch again —and helped give the Jeeps an early-season stake atop the SOC II.
Both coaches know exactly the offensive machine which Maloney is, as she also dug up four balls.
“She’s going to be the focus of everybody’s defense. You’re not going to stop her, but if you can slow her down…,” said Wheelersburg coach Allen Perry. “Maybe that’s your goal.”
“Faith is just a dominant player. We’ve watched her develop over the last several years. I’ve known since the first time I saw her play that she was going to be somebody special. When she turns it out, it’s hard to stop,” said SWHS coach Darcee Claxon. “And that in turn opens it up for everybody else. We’ve got a lot of girls who can put the ball away. We’re athletic and tall and we pursue balls well.”
Indeed, other Jeeps are heavily involved.
Bri Claxon and Bella Claxon stuffed the stat sheet as well — with Bri amounting seven kills, an ace and nine digs and Bella collecting eight kills, four aces, 17 digs and 16 assists.
The Jeeps’ other setter, Skylar Zimmerman, had a double-double in assists (21) and digs (13).
The Jeeps’ third Claxon, Grace Claxon, chalked up 14 digs and served for three aces — as Maloney, Bri Claxon, Grace Claxon and Rylee McGraw (five kills, four digs) make up their senior quartet.
“Grace played a great game in the back row for us. She was a difference-maker, coverage-wise and passing. We don’t get big kills if we don’t have people like Bella (Claxon) and Skylar (Zimmerman) distributing the ball. Rylee McGraw has come a long way and Bri is playing great,” said Coach Claxon. “It’s a huge team effort.”
It took a team effort, and a change in mindset, for the Jeeps to reverse the Pirates’ performance from the opening set.
There were a dozen ties and five lead changes, although South Webster was in front for the majority, including as large as 17-13.
The Jeeps held one-point leads of 21-20, 22-21, 23-22, 24-23, 25-24 and finally 26-25 —while serving for the game point with the final three.
But the Pirates forced the 12th and final tie at 26-26, went ahead with a Jeeps’ net violation, and finally prevailed in the opener on a Meeker kill.
It was one of seven kills for Meeker, who was an impact Pirate player last season on a senior-oriented club.
She also had three aces and a pair of blocks, as Perry praised his young unit for battling back against its taller and veteran hosts.
It also didn’t help that Wheelersburg was playing the Jeeps for its season opener.
“We got an extra day of practice to try and prepare for this. We knew it was going to be a monumental task, because they do have a great team over there. My hats off to them,” said Perry. “I hope they have a great year and go really far again in the tournament and represent us all. I think they are a Final Four caliber-team in Division IV.”
Wheelersburg is also playing without injured senior and captain Lyndsay Heimbach, whom Perry said can hopefully return prior to the end of the season.
These new Pirates include junior middle hitter Madie Mays (11 kills), senior outside hitter Lexie Rucker (nine kills, 12 digs), junior setter Makenna Walker (27 assists) and junior defensive specialist and libero Madison Whittaker (15 digs).
“My girls always have a lot of heart. They are never going to give up. We really have a new varsity team out there. We have one returning player out there in Ryleigh Meeker. She has was having to do a lot,” said Perry. “Just these girls fighting back in that first set showed them that we can do this.”
But the Jeeps quickly righted themselves, forced the Pirates into a plethora of attack errors, and never trailed in the runaway middle two games.
In fact, the Pirates’ largest lead of the entire match was their 5-2 third-set score, as they led or were tied (1-1 and 5-5) for the opening 10 points — before the Jeeps turned the tide and closed the deal.
“The first set we were playing a little tentative. I think sometimes the girls put a lot of pressure on themselves to be perfect, even though we talk a lot about the fact that volleyball is just a game of who can make the least amount of errors. Everybody is going to make them. I feel like we have the firepower and weapons we need to be successful, but that first set we were still being tentative,” said Coach Claxon. “And you can’t give a team like Wheelersburg confidence and momentum. They were pursuing balls like crazy and played a great first game. But we also talk about controlling the tempo of the game and the energy. You are in control and it’s you against yourself. We finally settled in there, and started to take the game to them.”
The Pirates, whose non-league match at Fairfield for Saturday was canceled, play again on Monday in the SOC II at Waverly.
“We have a lot of work to do,” said Perry.
So do the Jeeps — which travel on Saturday for a colossal non-league encounter at Division III Southeast District powerhouse Adena.
First serve is set for noon.
“Adena is great and well-coached and has a lot of athletes. This will be a good test for the girls,” said Coach Claxon. “I just want them to go in there and compete and have some fun.”
And, right now, Maloney and the Jeeps are doing just that —after taking matters into their own hands on Thursday night.
“I’m just very proud of how we came out and performed,” said Claxon. “We’ve played Wheelersburg a lot of years where we were the ones pursuing balls and not quite able to get over that hump. It feels good to see our girls’ hard work they’ve put in the last several years really pay off.”
Reach Paul Boggs at (740) 353-3101 ext. 1926, by email at [email protected], or on Twitter @paulboggssports © 2021 Portsmouth Daily Times, all rights reserved