By Brad Fauber
FRONT ROYAL -- Heading into the fourth set of Warren County's Bull Run District tournament quarterfinal volleyball match on Tuesday, visiting Strasburg appeared to have all of the momentum.
The sixth-seeded Rams had roared back from a loss in the first set to win the next two, and the No. 3 Wildcats suddenly found themselves facing the real threat of elimination as Strasburg jumped out to a six-point lead in the fourth game.
But the momentum suddenly shifted dramatically for Warren County, and the Wildcats rallied to win the fourth and fifth sets and grab a thrilling 3-2 (25-19, 22-25, 14-25, 25-22, 15-9) win over the Rams.
With the win, Warren County advances to Thursday's semifinal match, where it will play No. 2 William Monroe at Madison County High School at 6 p.m.
"We just dug deep. We dug deep and focused on our fundamentals and doing what we know how to do in order to win," Wildcats coach Sarah Putnam said. "It definitely was not easy. Strasburg, I thought, moved really well. They hustled, and they've got some solid players on their team that gave us a run for our money. There were times where we just struggled with that, but we overcame that."
Holding a 2-1 lead in the match, Strasburg gained an 11-5 lead to open the fourth set behind a handful of Warren County errors and three kills by senior Allison Bromley (team-high 14 kills).
But Warren County responded as junior Autumn Troxell answered with a block and a kill to cut the Wildcats' deficit to three points, and two more kills by Troxell later in the set gave Warren County (12-10) a 14-12 lead.
"I think it really got in our heads that 'now is when we really have to play our game,'" said Troxell, who led the Wildcats with a match-high 15 kills and seven blocks.
The Wildcats pushed the lead to 21-16 late in the game on a kill by Arie Roth and an ace by Kylee Eyler, and Troxell's fifth kill of the set gave Warren County the 25-22 win and forced a decisive game five.
Warren County rode that momentum into the fifth game and took a quick 7-1 lead, but the Rams answered with a 7-2 run to cut the Wildcats' lead to one. But Warren County scored six of the game's final seven points, and Troxell dropped an ace into the middle of the Rams' defense to cap the thrilling comeback.
For Strasburg, the early exit in the district tournament wasn't ideal, but Tuesday's performance gave the Rams plenty to build on heading into next week, where the real postseason begins with the Conference 35 tournament. Strasburg will travel to Page County next Tuesday for the tournament's opening round.
The Rams were right in the match from start to finish, and the energy level from Strasburg's squad was perhaps the highest it had been all season on Tuesday night.
"This is the best that they've played all season," Rams coach Suzanne Mathias said. "I challenged them to show me heart and pride, and I felt they did that. I told them to be proud to wear the Strasburg uniform, and I got it. I can't be anymore proud of what they did."
Strasburg's (10-11) enthusiasm was apparent from the start, as the Rams quickly raced out to a 15-7 lead after back-to-back aces by senior Marissa Doman and a kill by Bromley.
But Warren County roared back behind Troxell, who finished with five kills and five blocks in the set to help the Wildcats finish the game on an 18-4 run and take a 1-0 lead.
"We started off slow but once we started talking and we started calming down, we started to play our game," Troxell said. "We started moving our feet, getting better passes, setting up our setters to set up our hitters."
Troxell stayed hot early in the second set, as she tallied three straight kills and a block to help Warren County to a 12-9 lead. Strasburg gained a 14-13 advantage on a kill by Kelsey Horton (five kills), and the two teams fought closely before the Rams were able to pull away for the win behind kills from McKenzie Stickley and Hannah Keane, a block by Mikala Alsberry and an ace by McKenna Orndorff.
Strasburg then rolled to a 25-14 win in the third set as Bromley fired six kills and the Rams' defense limited Warren County to just three kills.
"We touched and blocked more balls tonight than we have probably all season," Mathias said. "We were everywhere. We were hustling, going everywhere and touching every ball."
Brook Post added eight kills for the Wildcats, while Roth finished with four kills and four aces.
Alsberry added seven kills and three blocks for Strasburg.
Contact sports writer Brad Fauber at 540-465-5137 ext. 184, or email@example.com