By Jeff Nations - email@example.com
STEPHENS CITY -- Shenandoah Valley Christian Academy's Amber Miller knew something had to be done about her serve.
Heading into her sophomore year after playing volleyball for the first time ever as a freshman, Miller was determined not to repeat the service-line struggles she endured as a freshman. That meant extra work, lots of it -- most of it outside.
"We have a fence in the backyard, and my mom would make me go hit over it for like an hour a day, just to get my serve," Miller said. "Last year it was terrible. I finally got it."
Evidently she did, as Miller paced SVCA's strong service game against Riverfront Christian with five aces in a 3-0 (25-22, 25-20, 25-19) victory on Monday.
Terrible -- that's a word Riverfront's Jordan Dunford might well apply to the Rams' first matchup with SVCA, also a 3-0 loss, back on Sept. 10. The first game was a lopsided 25-8 loss in that match. On Monday, though, Riverfront (0-4) showed just how far the team has come since then by pushing the Patriots in all three games.
Dunford, the lone senior on a roster made up mostly of middle school-aged players, displayed her leadership with a strong all-around match that included seven aces, a pair of kills and 14 service points. Not a bad effort for a player who, like her teammates, practices outdoors on a grass field behind Riverton United Methodist Church in Front Royal.
"It's hard for us because we don't have a gym or anything like that," Dunford said. "Playing girls that have a gym every day, it's pretty cool for us to be able to keep up with them."
SVCA (10-1) did liberally use its bench, and top hitter Carol Bartholomew didn't play against the Rams. That didn't seem to matter early, as the Patriots surged to a 6-0 lead in the first set behind Hannah McGann's serving. McGann, who tied Miller with five aces in the match, had three in that service run.
Riverfront showed its resiliency by battling back behind a long service run by Kelly Tarmon, who notched back-to-back aces during the 5-0 spurt that pushed the Rams ahead, 9-8.
It was back-and-forth from there, as Riverfront eventually stretched its lead to 18-14 on a Dunford ace. Miller flashed her newfound service skills after that with a 6-0 run that included three aces. The Rams hung around, pulling back within a point at 23-22 before Heather Park delivered a kill for SVCA and Riverfront hit a return wide to give the Patriots the set-winner.
The second set was more of the same, as the Rams erased an early SVCA lead with strong serving by Julia Turner and Dunford. A 5-0 service run by Dunford put the Rams up 15-10, but the Patriots battled back to pull even at 20-all before Krista Freemire closed out the set with a dominating 5-0 service run that featured four aces.
The final set featured more serve-and-volley action, as neither team featured a dominant hitter on the floor. SVCA's Hayley North delivered three straight aces to push her team ahead 14-11, but the Rams wouldn't quit. Riverfront tied it at 17-all and stayed within one point twice after that, but McGann closed out the match with a four-point service run.
It was a balanced effort for the Patriots. While Miller and Hannah McGann led the service game, Park tallied a match-high four kills.
"It's great to let them have experience because some of them don't get a chance to play a lot in the bigger games," Patriots coach Ellie Wheelock said. "So they got a lot of playing time, lots of experience, and they were able to show me some things that they could do that sometimes I'm not sure they can. They were really showing me today that they could."
Kelly Tarmon led the Rams with three kills, while Turner added three aces. Riverfront finished with 12 aces overall.
"We've been practicing a lot on serving," Rams coach Kenny Tarmon said. "We've been practicing a lot on teamwork, as far as getting it together for three hits and getting it over."