KNIGHTSTOWN — When the Eastern Hancock volleyball team caught wind of their Sectional 42 draw earlier this month, the Royals knew they had a shot at redemption — if they hit their stride.
Losing to rival Knightstown 3-1 during the regular season, the only way they would get another crack at the Panthers was in the postseason.
After knocking off Indianapolis Howe 3-0 in Thursday night’s quarterfinal, they guaranteed the rematch and came out with a renewed confidence Saturday.
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The Royals won a tug-of-war match against the host Panthers 3-2 in the sectional semifinal morning session to advance into the finals, where they lost to Shenandoah 3-0.
“We wanted to come out and play with energy. This morning we were really motivated, especially with Knightstown our biggest rival. We wanted to prove a lot of people wrong and go to the sectional final,” Eastern Hancock junior Leah Ferguson said. “We put everything we had out there and got the win. We got to the finals.”
For some teams, losing in the championship match would be considered a shortfall, but for coach Cory Rainbolt’s up-and-coming program, it was a large step toward the future.
The Royals (10-24) entered the postseason 8-23. They won two of their final eight matches and struggled to find consistency as Rainbolt began working from the ground up in her first year at the helm.
“We have a lot of girls that play multiple sports, being such a small school. This offseason during open gym we would have maybe four or five people there max in the spring,” Ferguson said. “Coming into the first weeks of the season we were learning and getting better. We’ve had our ups and downs, but it’s says a lot where we ended up.”
Against Knightstown, Rainbolt’s Royals showcased their potential.
Eastern Hancock jumped out first to take the initial set 25-22 before Knightstown rallied back to tie the match with a 25-22 second-set win.
Led by Ferguson’s team-high 12 kills in the match, the Royals won the third set 25-15 with the Panthers grabbing the fourth 25-20.
Sophomores Payton Hicks and Laurie Eells fired five and six aces, respectively, during the back-and-forth battle. Eells added five kills and 20 assists, and junior Kaysi Gilbert contributed five kills. Hicks finished with six total blocks.
Freshman Haley Best kept the court clean with 23 digs as the Royals countered the Panthers attack to win in the decisive fifth set 15-11.
“The Knightstown game was a completely different team than we’ve seen this year, which is exciting for us because we have everyone coming back except one (senior Alyssa Hunt),” Rainbolt said. “That alone speaks volumes for us.”
Against Shenandoah (23-13), experience trumped the fatigued Royals, however, despite a passionate effort.
The Raiders won the first set 25-5 and the second 25-14. Eastern Hancock led the second set early, but the Raiders regrouped quickly to regain control.
Gilbert and Ferguson combined for 10 kills and Eells had 11 assists in the title match. Alyssa Hunt recorded two total blocks while Best, sophomore Madison Stunda and junior Kayli Lewman combined for 16 digs.
Shenandoah put the match away in the third 25-13.
“We used a lot of excitement today for the Knightstown game, and I knew we were probably going to come out flat for this game,” Rainbolt said. “Unfortunately, we didn’t have what we wanted for (the final), but we’re pretty proud of where we are right now. We need to build from here.”