Heartbreaking Finale: Royals fall in volleyball sectional opener to Patriots

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LIBERTY — The words and emotion were consistent throughout as the season unexpectedly closed out early on the Eastern Hancock Royals volleyball team Thursday night.

Royals head coach Cory Rainbolt expressed gratitude for her four seniors, their leadership, their hard work and the legacy they now leave behind.

Royals senior Lili Hunt used words such as pride and fun while reflecting on the Royals’ 20-win 2021 campaign that ended in the opening round of the Class 2A Sectional 41 tournament in Liberty against host Union County, 3-0.

“This has definitely been the best season us seniors have had in our four years. I’m really proud of how far we came as a team. Obviously, I wish it had gone different, but overall this season was really good,” Hunt expressed with tears in her eyes.

For the first time since 2017-18, the Royals reached 20 victories, and the EH seniors led the charge back to that mark after two 11-win seasons and a 10-19 finish in 2020.

Against Union County (15-7), the Royals (20-9) tried everything they could to make it 21 and a trip to Saturday’s semifinal round, but momentum eluded the road-weary team as the Patriots won by set scores of 25-22, 25-21, 31-29.

“We just could not get in sync tonight, so that was kind of difficult. Union, I’ll give them credit, they dug well. It was hard to put a ball down. They did a nice job for sure,” Rainbolt said.

“An hour-and-10-minute drive doesn’t help much either, but you have to be ready to go when you hit the court, so we just couldn’t get it going in the right direction tonight.”

The Royals were in for a fight from the first set, locking up with the Patriots through 13 ties and six lead changes before a 5-3 rally from Union County closed the first game.

In the second, the Patriots built a 7-0 lead and rode the margin until the final point despite Eastern Hancock chipping the deficit to three points, twice.

“We played close, but we came out in that second set in a pretty big hole, so that always makes it difficult. I think, momentum comes from ourselves and we just didn’t really bring that tonight,” Hunt said.

Hunt finished the night with a team-high nine kills, 20 digs and added three aces. Senior Sydni Bednarski had six kills, while junior setter Sydney Hayes posted 30 assists.

Alivia Coffin, a junior, hammered down five kills, and senior Megan Retherford provided 10 digs.

The Patriots, who were without their starting setter due to injury, attacked with their big hitters in Elyse Peters, Chloe Greene, Autumn Cantrell and Hanna Vaughn.

Cantrell capped the first set with a kill. Peters followed in the second and came up with another to end a hotly-contested third set.

“Our timing on our blocks were just off tonight, and we worked on that in practice, but sometimes it just doesn’t click,” Rainbolt said.

The Royals’ pride was put on display in the third set, which featured 22 ties, eight lead changes and match-point for the Patriots on four different occasions.

Eastern Hancock deadlocked the set 15 times, including 20-all after trailing by as many as four points.

The Royals led 24-21 late in the match, but the Patriots clawed back to tie the third game, 24-24, before kills from Coffin, Hunt and an ace by senior Bre Taulbee kept the match going.

“They’re ballers. All of them are ballers. They love the game, and I think it shows,” Rainbolt said. “That’s why going out in the first round. That’s not what we expected, but Union County was the better team tonight.”

Hunt’s final killed knotted the score 29-29 until consecutive kills by Peters ended the marathon, tug-of-war.

“A 20-9 season, it was a fun season. This team really jelled together. They are a special bunch. My son (Cole) is in their class as well, so I kind of know them a little bit more than most seniors, and I’m going to miss all four of them,” Rainbolt said.

“They’ve really done some tremendous things for this program. They set the bar high, and their leadership in the offseason, as well, was huge. It’s been an impact on our underclassmen. I owe them a lot, and I’m thankful I got to spend four years with them.”

The Royals will return three key starters next year, and several more reserves, who were a big part of the varsity rotation. With the imprint left behind by the Class of 2022, the Royals are hopeful another 20-win season is ahead.

“I think we have a lot of young leaders coming up. Lots of the juniors will be good seniors next year and I think there’s a lot of potential from the JV team and up,” Hunt said. “That will carry on into varsity next year.”