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Royals on roll as county volleyball tourney nears

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CHARLOTTESVILLE — There were tears before the match and toward the end of the match.

In between, it was all smiles as the Eastern Hancock volleyball team cruised to its 14th-straight victory Tuesday with a sweep of rival Knightstown.

The Royals trailed only once — at 4-3 of the second set — and finished with a 25-22, 25-18, 25-17 win.

Heading into Saturday’s Hancock County Volleyball Tourney, also at EH, the Class 2A Royals’ current win streak includes victories over Class A No. 9 Hauser and defending Class A state champ and No. 6-ranked Wes-Del.

“I think expectations were high, but I don’t think we expected to be this good,” EH senior setter Jordian Eastes said. “To beat Hauser and Wes-Del in a matter of two weeks, I don’t think anybody imagined that.”

Part of the Royals’ success is due to their veteran depth, which was on full display Tuesday, appropriately enough, on Senior Night.

Outside hitters Rebekah Dickmander and Frannie Stephenson notched 13 and nine kills, respectively, Hannah Best had 23 digs and five aces and Eastes was credited with 36 assists.

Best, a junior, is among the state leaders in digs, and Eastes, a senior, is also ranked among the state’s top setters. Stephenson is the Royals’ top spiker this year, with Dickmander, junior Lauren Harmon, sophomore Melissa Bedell and senior Emily Jeffries also keying the EH attack.

“I’ve got five kids with over 100 kills, so I’ve got all kinds of depth,” Royals’ coach Mike Eastes said.

According to Eastes’ players, the credit for the win over Knightstown — a possible sectional foe — goes to their fans.

A boisterous section of students cheered the Royals throughout the match, and that support finally overwhelmed the EH girls, who shed a few tears.

“Towards the end of the third set the guys in the crowd were saying ‘Thank you seniors’ and the chant, it just got to everybody,” Stephenson explained. “The crowd really helped us stay pumped and excited tonight,  and we just love the energy.”

Stephenson was also emotional prior to the match. A transfer from Greenfield-Central, the 5-foot-10 heavy hitter sat out the Royals’ first seven matches this season waiting for her eligibility to kick in, per IHSAA transfer rules. (The Royals are 15-2 with Stephenson in the lineup; 4-3 without.)

While waiting for her mom to arrive for the pre-match Senior Night festivities, Stephenson dabbed tears from her eyes. Afterward, she reflected on the journey that ended at a new school, with a new team.

 “I love it here,” Stephenson said. “I tell everybody I feel more at home here than I have anywhere else. I thought it was going to be more of a challenge, but honestly it really wasn’t.

“Everybody’s so welcoming. A small-town community … everybody’s so awesome.”

The journey for Stephenson and her fellow Royals is nearing what could be an exciting finale. At 6-0 in their first season in the Mid-Hoosier Conference, EH will clinch at least a share of the conference title with a win Monday at home against Edinburgh (20-7 overall, 5-1 MHC or at Waldron (14-8, 4-2 MHC) on Oct. 11. A pair of wins would give the Royals the title outright.

Hauser (18-7, 6-1 MHC) is the only other one-loss conference team besides Edinburgh.

After possibly snaring a conference title, the Royals will aim for their first sectional championship since they won their lone title in 1984. The sectional draw is Monday, and EH will host Sectional 41, which will also include Cambridge City Lincoln (14-7), a 3-2 winner over the Royals on Aug. 16.

The sectional will begin Oct. 18.

“We didn’t have her,” Jordian Eastes said, pointing to Stephenson, “and we had injuries that were bugging us. So I think if we played (CCL) again with everybody healthy, it should be a good match.”

Stephenson, who hopes to attend and play volleyball at Marian University, said she didn’t consider herself to be the lone difference-maker for the Royals.

“I can’t do anything without my team,” she said. “It’s not on just me, it’s not on any one player. It’s the whole team. I mean I’m sure I add something to that, but I can’t do it without them either.”

Besides a possible rematch with Cambridge City, Eastern Hancock will focus on its second match this season against Greenfield-Central.

The Cougars (16-9) defeated visiting EH in four sets on Aug. 23 in Stephenson’s first match of the season. The two local squads will square off again Saturday in the county tourney semifinal at 11:30 a.m.

Defending county champ Mt. Vernon (5-19) will take on New Palestine (13-16) in the other semifinal, also at 11:30, with the championship to follow.

“We’re going in with nothing to lose,” Mike Eastes said. “We don’t have anything to prove. We’re going to go in and compete, that’s all we’re worried about doing.

“It doesn’t matter who you put out in front of us, we’re going to go out and compete.”

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