STRASBURG – After falling in three sets to Clarke County on the road in September, Strasburg’s volleyball team won the next two meetings, both at home, over the Eagles. But in Clarke County’s third trip to Strasburg in less than three weeks, and this time with both teams’ seasons on the line, the Eagles were victorious.

One week after falling in four sets to the Rams in the quarterfinal round of the Bull Run District tournament, Clarke County swept third-seeded Strasburg, 3-0 (25-23, 25-16, 25-23), in the Region 2B quarterfinals on Thursday.

The win sends the No. 6 Eagles into next Tuesday’s regional semifinal against No. 2 East Rockingham, which was a 3-1 winner over Buffalo Gap on Thursday night, while Strasburg’s season came to an end.

The Rams were once again without two players due to injury, including No. 1 setter Delainey Stickley, but head coach Suzanne Mathias-Carter said Strasburg’s issues on Thursday reached deeper than a shorthanded lineup.

“I can’t blame it on that. What I’m frustrated with is Clarke came in with more energy, more want-to,” said Mathias-Carter, whose team had its season end in the regional quarterfinals for the third straight year. “I’m not gonna blame it on any kind of different personnel. Does that make a difference? Sure. But I try to tell them … you’ve got to want and demonstrate heart at that point. And I felt like we were just flat. We were flat from when I walked in to set up the gym to the end there. I mean there was a little bit of life there in the third set when we kind of talked about that we were at a do-or-die point, so I saw a little life but then it was just like it deflated.”

Clarke County (10-12), on the other hand, was particularly motivated by Thursday’s win-or-go-home scenario, head coach Barara McCauley said.

“I think that was exactly what we told them. We had nothing to lose,” she said. “They were winning against us, so to take that momentum was tough. That’s what we had to do tonight, and that’s a tough team, so (we were) having to try to attack the ball. We weren’t attacking it prior (to tonight) but now we’re starting to realize that attacking the ball makes a difference.”

So does taking a 1-0 lead on the road in a must-win situation. Powered by two kills apiece from Sara Murray, Hannah Trenary and Abigail Peace, the Eagles staked themselves a 22-14 lead in the opening set.

Strasburg (13-10), behind some stellar serving by senior Gracie McDonald, rallied to make it a game, eventually tying the set at 23-all on Kaitlyn Capps’ ace that dropped in the middle of Clarke County’s defense. But a service error regained the lead for the Eagles, who finished off the first set with Bella Stem’s second ace.

The first-set loss was the proverbial double-edged sword for Strasburg, as it gave the visiting Eagles some needed momentum and have a shock to the Rams’ confidence.

“We missed some serves in some key spots there,” Mathias-Carter said of the first set. “That’s kind of been something that’s happened to us throughout this year, we’ll get going and then miss two or three serves and kind of shift the momentum back. I tell them, volleyball’s a game of momentum. You’ve got to keep it. When it comes back to you, you’ve got to keep it and it kind of shifted there. We just didn’t fight back like I’d have liked for them to do.”

Ram errors riddled the second set as Clarke County outscored Strasburg 18-9 after the game was tied 7-7.

Strasburg never found much of a rhythm offensively in the first two sets and was slow to get senior hitter Lauren Nofsinger going. Nofsinger finished the match with a team-high nine kills and seven blocks, but seven of those kills came in the third set after the Rams were in a 2-0 hole.

“Our passers were struggling tonight. I think some of the difference was (the Eagles) were getting their serves in, where the previous two (matches) they struggled getting their serves in,” Mathias-Carter said of Clarke County, which had 18 aces in Thursday’s win against seven missed serves. “And they were hard serves. We had a hard time judging the ball on the back row and passes just – like I told them in the locker room, we only ended up with like one option, maybe two options for hitters where the previous two times we had three options probably 85, 90 percent of the time. Tonight I would probably be giving some in saying 65. That made a difference.”

Strasburg played its best volleyball in the third set as the Rams finally got Nofsinger going on offense and took an early 11-3 lead. Clarke County answered with the first of two game-three rallies, as two aces from Stem, two aces and a kill from Trenary and back-to-back kills by Murray gave the Eagles a 16-15 lead.

That advantage reached 18-15 after Stem’s block on a 50-50 ball at the net following a Clarke serve, but the Rams got two aces from McDonald and four kills and a block from Nofsinger to take a 23-19 lead.

Trenary’s seventh kill of the night gave serve back to Clarke County, and another kill from Stem pulled the Eagles within two. Three straight aces from senior Liz Wallace followed to give Clarke County a 24-23 lead, and the match ended when Nofsinger was whistled for a net violation as she hustled to track down an errant pass on Wallace’s fifth serve of the decisive run.

“I hate to see it for the seniors and especially for Delainey,” Mathias-Carter said of Stickley, who had recently suffered a concussion. “She wasn’t cleared to play again until Monday, so we were trying to get through to Monday so she could have one more. I hate it for her, that she didn’t get to finish out the last two games here.”

McDonald had five kills and five aces in her final high school match, and junior Bella Rhodes added five kills for Strasburg. Mady Judy had four aces and senior Baylee Hodson had three aces and 12 assists.

“Overall, I’m pleased,” Mathias-Carter said of the 2019 season. “Winning record, third (seed) in the region and the district, and I told them, I feel like it means more because there’s more teams in the district and more higher-caliber teams. To be finishing third there, I think that that’s an accomplishment and they worked through some adversity. I don’t think they worked through it all but they worked through it some as a team, which is a step but they still have a long way to go and get ready to face life head-on. But overall it was good.”

– Contact Brad Fauber at bfauber@nvdaily.com