By Jeff Nations
FRONT ROYAL -- Randolph-Macon Academy senior Kelli Hutcheson needed a minute after Thursday's season-opening volleyball match against Chelsea Academy.
Hutcheson and her teammates had just experienced one of those time-honored truisms in sports -- the last point is always the hardest.
So it was for the Yellow Jackets, who saw visiting Chelsea Academy stave off match point six straight times before Hutcheson finally ended it with a clean kill to the back line to lift R-MA to a hard-fought 3-1 (25-23, 25-12, 22-25, 25-21) victory.
"Oh my gosh, that's why my heart is still racing," Hutcheson said after the match. "I was like, 'OK, one more point.' They got like six points on us when we only needed to get one more point, and I was like, 'Come on, ladies. Keep going. Get this last point.'"
Leading 24-14 in the fourth set after Hutcheson's solo block, the Yellow Jackets suddenly hit a lull. Helena Briggs, serving for the Knights, rattled off a six-point run that included just one kill by Maria Echaniz. Other than that, it was R-MA passing and hitting errors extending the match before freshman setter Julia Norton finally put up the perfect ball for Hutcheson to smash for the winner.
Chelsea Academy's Michaela Berry, who had an outstanding match with 10 kills and five aces, never felt like her team was out of it until the final point.
"Helena is a really good server and when she puts the team together and really pushes us, we all kind of come back and we're ready to play," Berry said.
R-MA (1-0) had its own comeback in the first set, when the visiting Knights opened a 5-1 lead. Hutcheson helped the Yellow Jackets respond with an eight-point service run to put her team ahead, but the Knights weren't done. Briggs' ace tied the first set at 19-all, and she added another ace during her four-point service run to put her team up 22-19.
The Yellow Jackets regrouped behind hard-hitting junior Emmanuela Imansuangbon (five kills, two blocks), who delivered back-to-back kills to tie the set at 22-all and later had the set-winning block.
The Yellow Jackets immediately built a sizable lead in the second set and rolled to the easy win, setting up the chance for a quick sweep in their season opener.
The Knights had other ideas, as Berry's serving and hitting ability helped her team grab a lead in the third set, then rally back from five points down (20-15) to pull out the 25-22 win.
"It was competitive," Chelsea Academy coach Josh Peterson said. "We have a younger team, so we're starting two juniors, two freshmen and two sophomores. When you have a younger team, the nerves always play a part. But once they shake them off and realize they can play, you see what happens in the third set.
"When they're confident and they know they can play with the other team, they're right there in every match we've had."
Hutcheson thought that third-set loss was a wake-up call for R-MA.
"I think that we got a little cocky, but once we got a timeout and got to talk we pulled it together," Hutcheson said. "All the captains told the team to play like it's a brand-new game, like we haven't even had a game yet. And that pretty much got it back."
Hutcheson (match-high 12 kills, two solo blocks) was instrumental in R-MA's quick start in the fourth set, as the Yellow Jackets raced out to a 14-5 lead. Chelsea Academy (0-3) kept chipping away at that lead, trimming the deficit to six at 20-14 before Hutcheson sandwiched a kill and a block around Caitlin Bunker's ace to put the set out of reach -- or so it seemed, anyway, before that final surge by the Knights.
"When we can get into our offense, we pass well out of the back and when we get a good set our girls can hit the ball down," Peterson said. "I think we run a really good offense and I'm real proud of them, and I think as the season progresses we'll continue to get better."
R-MA coach Cathy Brill was happy with her team's efficient serving -- the Yellow Jackets gave up only four points on service errors all night -- and their resilience against a team they'd lost to in their only meeting last year.
"That was one of our goals this year, was to really work on our serve and start the season off serving better," Brill said. "We had as a goal to come back and serve better and play better against Chelsea."
Hannah Lee added seven kills for the Knights.
Breanna Collins finished with a match-best seven aces for R-MA, and Taylor Jones chipped in 20 digs and Norton had eight assists in her first varsity match.
Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or email@example.com>. Follow on Twitter @J_NationsNVD