By Dennis Atwood
STRASBURG -- Leading third-seeded Rappahannock two sets to one in the Bull Run District volleyball championship game Saturday night, top-seeded Strasburg came within an official's call of being vulnerable to getting into their fourth consecutive five-set match.
With the fourth set knotted at 23-23, and the crowd noise on both sides of the gym reverberating off the walls, an assist from senior Danika Kritter led to a Hanna Kopjanski hit that brushed the top of the net and landed in-bounds for the Panthers' apparent 24th point.
But a linesman ruled that the ball grazed the antenna, the referee reversed the call awarding the 24th point to the Rams, and the crowd noise seemed to raise the roof.
"What I saw was that the ball hit the tape [at the top of the net], but the line judge saw the antenna move, so they called it out," Kritter said. "But it was hard to tell. I think it hit the tape. In our fifth game against Madison we had a call like that in the last [set] that went against us too. It sucks when something like that happens."
Strasburg senior hitter Lauran Agnew then smacked her ninth kill of the night for the championship point, giving the Rams a 3-1 (25-19, 25-21, 18-25, 25-23) victory.
"That spot's been open all night, so when I got the set I knew it was gonna go there," Agnew said. "I wasn't 100 percent sure it was going to be a kill, but it was."
The Rams (17-3) went five sets in their three previous matches -- a win over Madison County, a loss to Clarke County (their first district loss since 2006), and a win over Clarke County in the tournament semifinals Thursday night.
Agnew (nine kills, 13 assists) was joined by seniors Casey Spiker (team-high 10 kills, three aces and three assists) and Samantha St. Clair (nine kills, one ace, one assist) in leading the way for the Rams.
Strasburg built a 9-1 lead in set one as Spiker got a kill and three consecutive aces (half of the Rams' total), St. Clair scored a kill and junior Taylor Hill made a block for a point.
The Panthers closed to within 14-11, then the Rams went on a 4-0 run with two kills by Spiker, one by Hill and a block by St. Clair, to go up 18-11.
Rappahannock could get no closer than a four point differential and gave the Rams the set-winning point on their sixth attack error.
The second set was evenly fought.
The Rams mounted a 7-1 run with a kill and an ace by St. Clair, and kills by Hill, Spiker, and Anna Racey, along with three attack errors by the Panthers, to take an 11-6 lead, the largest of the set.
Two Strasburg attack errors and an ace by the Panthers' Addie Swindler narrowed the Rams' lead to 20-19.
A kill and an ace by Racey, two kills by Agnew, and an attack error, while Kopjanski (match-high 13 kills, one ace) landed her ninth kill for the Panthers to cut the lead to 24-21.
As happened in the first set, a Rappahannock attack error gave the Rams the set-winning point.
After a 2-2 tie, the Panthers led the entire remainder of the third set, as Strasburg committed five attack errors and four of its six service errors in the match.
The Rappahannock attack in the set was led by Kopjanski and Kritter, with three kills and an ace each, and two blocks by Kritter, as Swindler's kill just inside the baseline was the set-winner.
The fourth set saw five ties and two lead changes before the Rams built the longest scoring streak of the match, 9-0, on four attack errors, a player error and a position error by the Panthers, along with kills by Cassie Myers, St. Clair, and Allyson Ponn, and an ace by Julia Morikawa, to give Strasburg a seemingly comfortable 19-11 lead.
Then the Rams committed six errors helping the Panthers to an 11-3 run, with two kills and an ace by Kritter, and a kill by Swindler, to knot the score at 22-22.
Then Swindler served the Panthers' 12th ace of the match, followed by a kill from Racey for the Rams.
"We all just knew we had to be ready to come out, because it was the tournament and they were going to fight, and we knew that Rapp gives their all every time they play us," Spiker said. "Even when Rapp's crowd gets excited it fires us up. It's all good. [In the fourth set] it got close in the beginning, but we just knew we just had to pull it together because the last three times we've played we've gone to five [sets], and we knew we just had to stick it together and finish it in four."
Kritter (12 kills, six assists, three aces, two blocks) was named Bull Run District Player of the Year.
"We obviously wanted to win," Kritter said. "We always want to beat Strasburg, but unfortunately we didn't. The first [set], we were too tense. We wanted to win so badly and we didn't communicate. Nothing really flowed together.
"But towards the end we really started to pick it up and there were definitely some fires, especially in the fourth [set], with our comeback. I'm so proud of my team just for sticking through it, even when things looked bad, we never stopped playing hard."
It's Strasburg's fifth consecutive Region B appearance. The Rams 16-player roster is rich in experience with six seniors, nine juniors, a sophomore and one freshman.
"All of them have been here before so they know the pressure, and that makes a difference when it comes down to 20-20 or 19-19," Strasburg coach Suzanne Mathias said. "I'm very confident with my kids when it comes to the end of a set or the match, that they're gonna just keep battling."
Strasburg will host Gretna in the Region B, Division 2 quarterfinals on Tuesday.