By Brian Eller
LURAY -- It started so promising. Stonewall Jackson had rallied in the first set, taking full advantage of its "underdog" role to push second-seeded Luray to match point. To cap things off, sophomore Taylor Koontz's final serve crashed onto the Bulldogs' side of the court for an ace, the perfect ending to what started as a dream scenario for the Generals as they took the first set.
Then, as it has all season for the red and white, what began as possibly a momentous upset in the opening round of the Shenandoah District tournament was really just a tease, a glimmer of hope that soon came crashing down. Situational timeouts, words of encouragement from the bench, not even rally cries from the Stonewall faithful in the stands could lift the Generals. After surprising Luray with a victory in the first set, the Generals dropped the next three to lose the match, 3-1 (24-26, 25-10, 25-16, 25-17).
"We came in with nothing to lose," Stonewall coach Jamie Armentrout said. "I think we showed at times we were capable of taking the momentum during the match but we still had the problem of, the smallest things seem to break us and that's what happened tonight."
For the three seniors on the Generals' squad -- Whitney Wilkins, Emily Litten and Haley Stover -- Monday's match wasn't just possibly their final chance to suit up this season. For the trio, a loss would mean the end of their high school careers. And from the start of the match, it was clear these girls weren't about to go quietly.
After Luray jumped out to a three-point lead, the two teams exchanged blows before the Generals held a 15-14 advantage midway through the match. A four-point rally from the Bulldogs forced Armentrout to use a timeout, saving what could've been a meltdown for the Generals. Instead, the underdogs kept their composure, recapturing the lead with a 6-0 run, leaving them three points from winning the opening set. Luray kept battling, however, tying the match back at 22, then again at 24. After a Stonewall kill, Koontz's serve left her hand and didn't return. The ball fell to the court, putting Stonewall in the lead, 1-0.
"I was surprised," Wilkins said. "I thought we played well. [The first set] we were playing with a lot of energy and excitement, and that's what helped us get the jump on them. It was very exciting."
Meanwhile, on the other side of the net, Luray coach Julie Rothgeb was busy trying to settle her Bulldogs down. After noticing some early match nerves in her players, she used the time in between matches to get them re-focused.
"We're still so nervous," Rothgeb said. "In our game against Riverheads [last week] we looked so good. That was the best match we played all season. That's what I wanted to see tonight, and unfortunately it wasn't there."
Their match against the Gladiators ended in a 3-1 loss for the Bulldogs. Monday's match against the Generals was on its way to the same fate unless Luray could calm its nerves moving forward.
It turns out those few minutes in between the sets were just what Luray needed. In the second set, the Bulldogs took a commanding 12-4 lead, an advantage they wouldn't let go of the entire set. After playing with such emotion and energy in the opening set, the down time had just the opposite effect for Stonewall. The Generals managed just 10 points in the loss, shifting the momentum back over to the home team.
Unfortunately for Stonewall, the momentum was all but surrendered to Luray's side of the court. Sets three and four were a little more competitive, but the Generals failed to hold the lead at anytime in either of them, falling by nine points in the third set and eight in the final one. Freshman Sable Ponn had 11 kills and five blocks for the Bulldogs, while junior Megan Good added 17 kills and six blocks in the victory. For Stonewall, Wilkins finished with 13 digs, 13 assists and four kills, along with five kills and six blocks from junior Haylee Bowers.
As the last Luray point came across the net, Stonewall Jackson's season came to an end, a season that, like Monday's match, had its bright spots, but didn't end in the Generals' favor.
"I'm sad," Wilkins said of her last high school match. "It hasn't hit me yet, but I loved playing with these girls and enjoyed the season we had."