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The Central Hardin Lady Bruins found themselves in a familiar position with the Elizabethtown Lady Panthers on Wednesday night.
Tied at a set apiece, the Lady Panthers had all of the momentum late in the third set and Central Hardin coach Bill Rineker burned two timeouts in a three-point span. It all felt like déjà vu for the Lady Bruins.
But unlike the teams’ first two meetings – both five-set wins for Elizabethtown – the Lady Bruins didn’t budge.
Second-seeded Central Hardin regrouped to win that pivotal third set and rolled in the fourth to earn a 25-27, 25-17, 26-24, 25-19 victory over top-seeded Elizabethtown in the 17th District Volleyball Tournament championship at Fort Knox.
“The first two matches against E’town, we kind of played tight. We were a little nervous and it was very sporadic, just all over the place,” said Central Hardin junior outside hitter Lauren Christman, who led the Lady Bruins with 21 kills and also had 16 digs. “This game – since we weren’t the favorites – we decided to go into it loose and just have fun, play with a bunch of energy. It really made a difference I think.”
It was the fourth consecutive district title for the Lady Bruins (27-9) and the ninth in the last 12 seasons.
But this one was different. Instead of coming in as the favorites, as it has the last few seasons, Central Hardin was the underdog. And the Lady Bruins embraced it.
“We really didn’t have anything to lose, so that’s what we played like,” said Central Hardin junior libero Brittany Brangers, who earned All-Tournament honors and had a match-high 27 digs.
Central Hardin junior middle hitter Taylor King (nine kills, eight kills), junior setter Samantha Bell (42 assists, 17 digs) and junior outside hitter Jade Dawson (four kills, four blocks) joined Brangers on the All-Tournament squad.
In the 11th straight meeting between the teams in the district final, Elizabethtown (25-11) was the one with the early energy. Elizabethtown senior middle hitter Emily Reding, who finished with five kills and five blocks, fought off set point with a kill before junior All-Tournament selection Gabrielle Collins (12 digs) had one of her five aces for a 25-24 lead. After an attack error, sophomore outside hitter Alyssa Keys finished the set with a kill.
The Lady Bruins regrouped in the second set, racing out to a 6-0 lead behind two aces from Bell. The Lady Panthers drew within 12-11 on senior outside hitter Lacey Boone’s kill, but Central Hardin sophomore outside hitter Ashley Verdugt (11 kills) had a kill and King had a block and Elizabethtown didn’t get closer than three points the rest of the set.
But it was the third set when the Lady Bruins really found out how far they’ve come. Ahead 24-18, Central Hardin watched Elizabethtown rattle off six straight points – aided by two aces from Collins and a kill from Keys – to pull even. But Verdugt notched a kill and an attack error gave the Lady Bruins the 2-1 lead.
“We just didn’t want a repeat of what happened before,” Christman said of not playing tight like the Lady Bruins did in the first two matches against the Lady Panthers. “We really just wanted to win for each other.”
With the pressure seemingly off, Central Hardin jumped out to a 9-1 lead in the fourth. Though Elizabethtown junior outside hitter Kayla Hindle’s kill and a passing error closed the gap to 22-19, Verdugt had three straight kills to close the match.
“E’town is a great team,” Rineker said. “They are not going to give you anything, and I knew at the end, someone had to step up and put the ball away because if we just keep putting the ball back over, they were going to catch us. I felt real fortunate to get out of it.”
Senior setter Megan Meek (30 assists, seven digs) and junior libero Rebecca Hepner (20 digs, team-high seven kills, five aces) made the All-Tournament team for Elizabethtown, which also got five kills and four blocks from senior middle hitter Shelby Priddy and four kills apiece from junior outside hitter Hannah Wurth and Hindle.
“We were ready to play this game, but mentally, we weren’t prepared,” said Elizabethtown coach Bart Catlett. “They looked forward to this match but we didn’t come out with the same fire we always have. Central played better tonight than I’ve seen them play all year.”
Freshman defensive specialist Mariah Helton had 20 digs, senior setter Kassidy Kinder added 18 digs and junior middle hitter Allison Powers had 10 kills and four blocks for Central Hardin, which is hoping this can serve as a launching pad in its quest for a fourth straight 5th Region title.
“For a young team like this to break through and get that big win I think is a thing can really put us over the top,” Rineker said.
Both teams advance to next week’s region tournament at John Hardin.
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or email@example.com.