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Cougars' semifinal rally leads to county volleyball crown

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — The Greenfield-Central/Eastern Hancock matchup is quickly becoming the most intense local rivalry on the volleyball court.

In the Hancock County Tourney semifinals Saturday morning, the Cougars trailed by as many as 10 points in the opening set and six points late in the second set, only to rally for a 26-24, 25-21 victory.

G-C went on to defeat Mt. Vernon 25-14, 25-22 to capture its first county title since 2009.

Six weeks ago in a tension-filled regular season match, the Cougars edged the Royals 21-25, 25-14, 25-22, 25-20.

A pair of former Cougars are suiting up for the Royals, who are enjoying one of the best seasons in program history, entering the tourney at 19-5. Just as in the Aug. 26 battle, the improved Class 2A Eastern Hancock squad was prepared to push 4A G-C again Saturday, and the Royals jumped to a 17-7 lead in Set 1.

“It’s no secret that it was a huge emotional match for both sides,” Cougars coach Rita Rouse said. “And we talked about that, not to get caught up in the emotion: ‘We have to stay focused on what we needed to do.’ And then we came out so unbelievably flat, couldn’t do two things right in a row.”

Slowly, however, on the Royals’ home court, the Cougars (18-9) began to find their bearings and eventually cut the EH advantage to 22-18. With Alex Colclazier serving, G-C won five of the next seven points to close the gap to 24-23. Taking over in the serve rotation was Cougars’ freshman Rachel Irbe, and, for the last of three straight G-C points, Irbe finished the set with a short-serve that fell to the floor in between the Eastern Hancock defense for an ace.

“It was a gutsy serve on Rachel’s part, and she handled the pressure beautifully,” Rouse said.

Set 2 followed a similar pattern, as Frannie Stephenson (14 kills in the match) and Emily Jeffries (four kills) paced the Royals to leads of 7-1 and 20-14.

Behind the well-placed serves of Abby Fennig and Caitey Sosnowski and the shotgun right arm of Irbe (13 kills), the Cougars thwarted their would-be nemesis.

Sosnowski had the EH defense in flux after taking over at serve with the Cougars trailing 19-11, helping G-C pull within 21-20. Then, Fennig delivered three aces to put the Cougars on top for good.

“Throughout my coaching career my teams have had some great comebacks, but this one … wow, it’s got to be right up there near the top.”

In the less-exhilarating championship, the Cougars controlled Set 1, then held off a stubborn Mt. Vernon unit to claim the county crown.

Irbe (nine kills), Sosnowski (six aces), Colclazier (eight digs), Maddi Graham (five kills), Savannah Hart (four kills), Jordan Bunch (four kills) and Megan Bradley (19 assists) fueled the Cougars over the Marauders.

For the day, including a 23-25, 25-18, 15-11 semifinal win over New Palestine, Mary Grace Ertel (22 digs, 14 kills), Ellie Balbach (19 assists, 11 kills), Emily White (17 assists), Lexi Reasor (12 digs, 10 kills, five aces) and Lauren James (22 digs) paced Mt. Vernon, who were two-time defending county champs.

Hit hard by graduation and injuries, the Marauders (6-23) are far removed from the kind of play that resulted in three sectional titles between 2007-2010.

MV coach Kris Lashaway was proud of her team’s effort Saturday.

“I’m excited,” she said. “I always want to win, but it’s been a rebuilding year and an injury-plagued year, so the lineup we had today, it’s the first time I’ve used it all season. So, I think they did great.”

Among injuries suffered by Marauders this season: broken foot (surgery), compartment syndrome-like leg symptoms, two concussions (one player out for six weeks), two knee injuries (one surgery, one dislocation).

“We’ve carried around more medical equipment than volleyball equipment,” Lashaway joked. “It’s been a tough year, but I thought we gave a great effort today.”

Following the loss to Mt. Vernon in the semifinals, New Palestine handled Eastern Hancock 25-15, 14-25, 15-9 in the consolation match.

New Palestine senior Katie Morris and freshman Megan Hawley were named to the All-Tourney Team (selected by coaches), along with EH’s Jeffries, the Marauders’ Ertel and Balbach and the Cougars’ Colclazier, Bradley and Irbe.

Saturday marked the debut of a new lineup for G-C. Set to host a sectional next week that will include state power New Castle (30-2), the Cougars added Hart to the rotation to give the blue-and-gold three frontline six-footers, along with Graham and Addison Hicks.

“We decided to bring another player up from the JV and everyone accepted her,” said Colclazier, one of the Cougars’ senior leaders. “We have another true middle; it was all about the team and how we could play together.

“And we’ve always preached that the entire season, it’s team chemistry and team first. It’ allowed us just to succeed and take it to another level.”

The Cougars’ county tourney effort has Rouse seemingly thinking sectional upset.

“To finish the season with this kind of attitude and effort could make for a very interesting couple of weeks,” she said.

Hancock County Volleyball Tourney results, Saturday at Eastern Hancock:


Greenfield-Central def. Mt. Vernon, 25-14, 25-22


New Palestine def. Eastern Hancock, 25-15, 14-25, 15-9


Greenfield-Central def. Eastern Hancock, 26-24, 25-21

Mt. Vernon def. New Palestine, 23-25, 25-18, 15-11

All-Tourney Team (as selected by coaches): Rachel Irbe, G-C; Alex Colclazier, G-C; Megan Bradley, G-C; Mary Grace Ertel, MV; Ellie Balbach, MV; Katie Morris, NP; Megan Hawley, NP; Emily Jeffries, EH

Previous tourney winners: G-C (2012), MV (2011, 2010), G-C (2009), NP (2008), MV (2007), NP (2006, 2005), G-C (2004, 2003)

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