By Greg Brill -- firstname.lastname@example.org
STEPHENS CITY -- As district openers go, this one was a classic.
Both James Wood and Sherando are expected to battle with Millbrook for the Northwestern District volleyball title this season, and the Colonels and Warriors put on quite a show on Wednesday night.
While the Warriors opened the match with a resounding double-digit win, the Colonels bounced back to win two tight sets, lost another lopsided set, then pulled out the fifth set to capture a 3-2 (15-25, 25-23, 25-23, 9-25, 15-11) victory.
Both teams were in late-season form, but it was the dominant play of James Wood's Emily Shannon that lifted the Colonels in the decisive fifth set. The Colonels never trailed in the final set and Shannon accounted for six consecutive James Wood points -- four kills, followed by a pair of aces -- to put her team ahead 10-4.
"All I kept thinking was, 'Who want's it more?'" Shannon said. "We just kept pushing and pushing because Sherando is a very competitive team."
Sherando twice got within 3 points before an attack error by the Warriors ended the match.
"I just kept reminding my team what it felt like to come in here last year and beat Sherando in the district semifinals," James Wood coach Jill Lester said. "We were the underdog [then], and tonight we felt like the underdog again because in preseason Sherando was ranked No. 1 and we were ranked No. 4 by the newspapers. So we wanted to come in here and prove what kind of game we've got. We've got something to build on, we definitely do."
Playing her first full match in a week (a back ailment limited her court time), Shannon led James Wood (5-3, 1-0) with 17 kills and five aces. Sherando (4-5, 0-1) also got an exceptional match from Morgan Sirbaugh, who also totaled 17 kills, and its defense, which handled plenty of hard shots from James Wood's tall front row.
The Warriors came out on the attack right away. After the teams traded points early on, Sherando started to get into a groove with Sirbaugh and Lauren Wilkins pounding hits through James Wood's block. Sirbaugh had seven kills in the first set, Wilkins had three kills and three aces, and setter Taylor Henshaw opened with 11 assists.
"In the first set we were really excited, and I think that's what [hurt us], our nerves," Shannon said. "We just knew we had to buckle down, and we did. We had to pull together."
James Wood adjusted better in the second set, but Sherando found itself with a 4-point lead, holding serve, and only 2 points from moving ahead two sets in the match. But a service error forced sideout, and Carly Mullin served out the second set with five straight points. Mullin had two aces during the run and a ballhandling error by Sherando evened the match at one set apiece.
"Last year, [Sherando's] attacks were more to the middle to the court," Lester said. "This year, for them to hit deep, in the majority of the match, we weren't ready for [that]. We made a few adjustments and dropped our middle [coverage] back and that seemed to help us a little bit.
"Our defense is something that we pride ourselves on and to come out in the first [set] and just totally get beat on defense was a real letdown."
In the third set, Sherando regained momentum when Wilkins pounded five straight aces for a 16-14 lead. The set went back and forth, and the Warriors took a 22-21 lead on a blast by Wilkins to the back left-corner.
However, the Colonels again found a way to survive. After tying the set at 22, Shannon ripped a kill for the lead and Megan Crabtree sent a kill to the middle for set-point moments later.
Just like they did to open the match, Sherando regained its power in the fourth set. The Warriors went on a 10-0 run to open a 18-5 lead off Henshaw's serve. Both Morgan and Megan Sirbaugh had four kills in the set, forcing a fifth and deciding set.
"It's always intense when we play James Wood -- always has been and always will be," Wilkins said. "We got real fired up in the beginning, but they came back twice as hard in the second game, though."
A kill by Hannah Tierney got James Wood started in the fifth set and the Colonels never looked back. And once Shannon went to the service line, the Warriors began to waver.
"Emily Shannon got her jump-serve down," Sherando coach Chuck Ashby said. "Lauren [Wilkins] does the same thing -- you're either on or you're off. We were up a couple points and then Shannon got on a roll with serving and carried them."
Holding a 3-point lead, Shannon sent a rocket that the Warriors misjudged on the back row and fell for an ace. Her next two serves also went for aces, and James Wood was in command.
"She's definitely a force to be reckoned within our district, I think," Lester said of Shannon.
The Colonels got support from Crabtree (11 kills), Tierney (four blocks), Mullin (30 assists), Cady Schaffer (14 digs), and Eleanor Kent (13 digs).
The Warriors also had good outings from Wilkins (eight kills, 10 aces), Megan Sirbaugh (eight kills), and Henshaw (34 assists).
Ashby said he is looking forward to a season-long competitive race in the Northwestern.
"I think it's going to be which team shows up each night when we play Millbrook and James Wood [who wins]," Ashby said.