INDIANAPOLIS — In the time it will take the Eastern Hancock volleyball team to travel to Forest Park High School for the semistate tournament on Saturday, the Royals could have replayed each of their sectional and regional matches.
At least, with the quick work Eastern Hancock has made of its state tourney foes, it sure seems that way.
The Royals won the first regional title in program history Tuesday with a 25-22, 25-22, 25-18 win at Heritage Christian. The victory came on the heels of Eastern Hancock’s first sectional championship since 1984, which culminated Saturday after the Royals won three straight matches without dropping a set.
“When I had call out (for tryouts), I told them this was going to be a special season, and I believed that wholeheartedly,” EH coach Mike Eastes said Tuesday evening as the Royals and their fans celebrated on Heritage Christian’s home court. “So, no, I’m not surprised.”
Eastern Hancock’s string of postseason shutouts will be challenged Saturday when it faces Class 2A No. 2-ranked Providence at Forest Park in Ferdinand, which is northeast of Evansville and a three-and-a-half hour bus ride from Charlottesville. The Royals (28-9) and the private-school Pioneers (33-4) will battle at 11 a.m., followed by No. 4 Eastern Greene (35-2) vs. No. 10 Ritter (26-9). The championship is at 7 p.m., with the winner advancing to the state finals at Ball State versus the winner of Saturday’s other 2A semistate at Bremen.
The Royals hope to avoid a slow start like the one that plagued them against Heritage Christian. Five of the Royals’ first seven kill attempts sailed out of bounds, and the Eagles (14-20) quickly built an 8-1 lead.
“It was definitely nerves,” EH senior outside hitter Frannie Stephenson said. “We were so focused on the fact that this was a big game that we just came out a little bit timid.
“But, you know what, we regrouped and we did it. So, I’m really proud how everybody did.”
With Jordian Eastes on serve, the Royals reeled off nine straight points to take a 10-8 advantage, and they remained poised the rest of the night.
Trailing 19-18 later is the opening set, EH scored four straight points, including kills from Stephenson and Lauren Harmon, and closed out the set.
With the middle stanza tied 18-18, Stephenson notched two more of her game-high 11 kills during a 6-0 EH blitz that propelled the Royals to a 2-0 set lead.
Again in the third set, with the Eagles in front 15-13, the Royals put together a 9-0 rally that essentially closed out the contest. Stephenson had three kills during the final squashing of young Heritage Christian, which put six sophomores and a junior on the floor to start the match.
The Royals are 25-5 with Stephenson in the lineup this season, but their defense and passing have been just as vital.
On Tuesday, Hannah Best, Tori Bednarski and Lytia Vanderpool combined for 31 digs out of the back row, neutralizing the Eagles’ top threat, sophomore outside hitter Peyton Fallis.
“We had some film on (Heritage Christian), thanks to New Palestine,” said Mike Eastes, referring to one of the Royals’ and Eagles’ common opponents. “Fallis is pretty good. From what I saw on film, that’s who they fed through. So, we had to contain her.”
With Best and Co. picking up most of Fallis’ attempts off the floor, the Eagles’ hitting attack never got in full swing.
“There’s no way we could have done any of this without them,’ Stephenson said of the Royals’ defense specialists. “They all just work so hard.”
Stephenson added nine digs, while Eastes, in addition to a match-high 22 assists, contributed eight digs and five aces.
Harmon (three kills, four blocks), Melissa Bedell (five kills, four blocks), Emily Jeffries (four kills, three blocks) and Bekah Dickmander (three kills) aided Stephenson at the net.
While the Royals ultimately won the regional title on the strength of a skilled, balanced effort, the Eagles were, at times, their own worst enemy.
Heritage Christian made nine service errors, hit 11 kill attempts into the net, swatted 10 balls out of bounds and committed four lifting/net violations.
It’s unlikely Providence will gift wrap as many points at semistate on Saturday. Among the Pioneers’ victories this season was a 3-2 win over 4A No. 3 Columbus East, which won a regional title Tuesday.
“We’re going to have to practice hard,” Bednarski, the Royals’ senior DS said. “I know that the teams that are coming up are nothing like this team was.
“The teams in the sectional we played against were not very good teams, so semistate is a whole ’nother level. We have a lot to work on.”
Bednarski and her teammates were joined by a lights-blazing firetruck accompaniment when they returned to Hancock County Tuesday evening, with dozens of parents’ vehicles trailing the Royals’ team bus. It was a festive atmosphere, to be sure, and no matter how much longer the party lasts, these girls have left their mark.
“We’ve got nothing to lose (Saturday), everything to prove,” coach Eastes said. “Just go down there and have fun. That’s what I keep telling them. Just go out and have fun and continue to make history.”
Around the state
In other regional title matches Tuesday, Class 3A No. 1 Yorktown and 2A No. 1 Wapahani each won championships and, as a result, will move up one class next season because of the IHSAA’s new “tradition factor.”
Under the plan, which was instituted this year, sports programs earn a certain number of points for each sectional, regional, semistate and state championship. Once a team reaches six points in a two-year span, they’re bumped up a class for the next two-year period. The new plan was made retroactive to include results from the 2011-12 school year, and Yorktown’s and Wapahani’s success last year, along with their regional titles Tuesday, will move them into 4A and 3A, respectively, beginning in 2013-14.
It’s possible Yorktown could be slotted into a sectional with 4A Greenfield-Central. The Cougars’ volleyball sectional already includes a number of teams to the north, including Anderson and Pendleton Heights. G-C lost to 4A No. 1 New Castle in the sectional championship Saturday, but the Trojans were upset by Cathedral Tuesday in the regional final. New Castle could also be in a different class next season. The IHSAA will release new classifications in the spring based on school enrollment, and New Castle has been on the 3A/4A bubble the last several years.
Among Eastern Hancock’s fellow Mid-Hoosier Conference teams, Hauser (27-8) stayed alive in the Class A tourney with a regional championship win over Lutheran.