By Jeff Nations
QUICKSBURG -- There's a reason Strasburg High School senior Hannah Keane is captain of this year's volleyball squad.
There's also a reason why fellow Rams senior Christian Hepner is the first server in the rotation each and every set.
Host Stonewall Jackson found out just why on both counts Monday night, as Keane's fiery play along the net and Hepner's devastating service game combined to help lead the Rams to a 3-1 (25-22, 24-26, 25-23, 25-16) victory over the Generals in the season opener for both squads.
Stonewall Jackson got off to a quick start in the opening set, stretching a 9-7 lead to 14-7 on Brooke Simpson's solid service run.
Down 16-8 in that same set, Keane apparently had seen enough. She picked up her first kill to force a side out, then delivered a block to start Hepner's nine-point service run. Keane had two more kills and a block and Hepner fired off a trio of aces during that stretch as the Rams surged to a 19-16 lead.
"As captain, I have to take it upon myself to make them feel good and make them keep their momentum," Keane said. "It doesn't matter how far you're down -- you always have a chance to catch back up."
The Generals regrouped and tied the set at 21-all on Kaylin Miller's ace, but then ran out of steam with a few hitting errors as Strasburg grabbed the 25-22 win.
Hepner (match-highs of 30 service points and 11 aces) gave the Rams a boost to open the second set with a quick four-point service run that put her team up 5-1, but Stonewall came right back to tie it at 6-6. The Rams regained the lead and kept it for much of the set, holding a 23-20 advantage late. A couple crucial service errors hurt them after that, and the Generals battled back for a 26-24 win on Cheyenne Crigger's set-clinching kill.
The third set was eerily similar, as Hepner's opening service run gave Strasburg a five-point lead before Stonewall rallied back to wrest that advantage away. Madison Long's kill for the Generals knotted the set at 23-all, but Stonewall lost a point on a net violation and Strasburg's Dakota Funkhouser closed out the set win with a looping ace to the back line.
"They stayed positive," Rams coach Suzanne Mathias said. "They didn't give up even after the 26-24 loss. They went right back out and went to work."
Hepner was at it again in the fourth set, unleashing a crushing 11-point service run to give her team a commanding lead.
"Christian has become a very strong server," Mathias said. "She can control hard, easy, short, deep -- she just tries to find the weakest link and keep going at them."
The Generals cut into that advantage by outscoring the Rams 10-4 after that, but the deficit was too much as Strasburg closed out the match with a 25-16 victory.
First-year coach Lindsey Dinges would have preferred the win, but for an opening match she couldn't find much fault in her squad.
"We've been really working the past three weeks on their serve receive and their communication, and it really showed tonight," Dinges said. "I know we didn't get the win, but I can't complain about the way they played. They kind of shut down on me in the fourth game, and that's endurance. We're going to have to work on finishing, but I really don't have anything negative to say about them because they really have turned around since last year."
Keane finished with match highs of 10 kills and five blocks.
"I think what bothered us in the beginning was the serves, and that got better throughout the game," Keane said. "I think every time we hit the ball, they couldn't really return it. So we just had to keep swinging."
Mathias thought her team looked solid for its first match.
"I've got seven seniors, but they just didn't have a lot of court time last year," Mathias said. "They're a very positive group and they work hard, and it's just going to keep getting stronger as the season goes on and they get comfortable with each other. I liked what I saw."
Contact staff writer Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or firstname.lastname@example.org