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For the Central Hardin Lady Bruins to beat the Green County Lady Dragons for a third time this season, Coach Bill Rineker and his players knew they would need to play their best volleyball of the season.
And though the Lady Bruins did at times, it was the Lady Dragons who were on their game all match long in the 5th Region Volleyball Tournament championship.
Central Hardin led in each set but Green County seemed to have one more big run in each and denied the Lady Bruins a fourth straight region title with a 25-19, 25-22, 25-20 victory Thursday night at John Hardin.
“They brought their A-plus game, and I felt like we had our C-plus or B-minus game,” Rineker said. “Against a team as good as them, that’s not going to cut it. It’s one of those things where our effort was there but we just didn’t play our best, and they did. Green deserved to win and was the better team tonight.”
Central Hardin finished the season 29-10, narrowly missing out on its fourth straight 30-win season. But few thought the Lady Bruins would make it to this point before the season as junior outside hitter Lauren Christman was the only player returning with significant experience.
In the weeks leading up to the start of the season, Lady Bruins insisted they weren’t rebuilding, but rather reloading, and they were right.
“If you looked at us from the beginning of the year, we weren’t even expected to make it out of the district,” said Central Hardin junior libero Brittany Brangers, who led the Lady Bruins with 11 digs. “If you look at us now, we’re a totally different team.”
Green County (34-6), on the other hand, returned 10 players from a team which lost to Central Hardin in the region final and was the preseason favorite. So though the Lady Bruins beat the Lady Dragons twice in a three-day span in late September, Green County has been steadily gaining on Central Hardin and finally caught the Lady Bruins on Thursday.
“Tonight, (Green County) was on point,” said Central Hardin defensive specialist Kassidy Kinder, the team’s lone senior who fought through a severely sprained ankle to play the last two matches. “They wanted it super bad, so they fought for it all the way. They’ve been working every year to come and win against us.”
Central Hardin came out on fire and maintained a lead through the first half of the first set. Two kills from Christman put the Lady Bruins ahead 16-13.
But Green County, as it did all night, had an answer. Two kills from Green County outside hitter Hannah Givens (match-high 12 kills) highlighted a 7-0 spurt which was halted by one of sophomore outside hitter Ashley Verdugt’s team-high 11 kills. The Lady Dragons, however, ended the set on a 5-2 run to take the early lead.
“They know how to play,” said Brangers, who made the All-Tournament team along with junior middle hitter Taylor King and Christman. “They definitely played their best, and they deserve it.”
Central Hardin appeared to forget the setback with four quick points to begin the second set. Green County countered with eight straight points and eventually led 14-11, but that was when Lady Bruins made their move.
King and Christman had two kills apiece in a 10-2 run to take a 21-16 lead. But with the Lady Bruins ahead 22-18, the Lady Dragons rattled off the last seven points to take a 2-0 lead.
“We never seemed to catch that break to get us over the hump,” Rineker said. “We would catch them, but then they would make their run. We never could get over the edge enough, except for (the second set), and they made a really great run at the end of the game. What can you say? Hat’s off to them.”
The Lady Bruins rallied in the third set with a 5-1 spurt as kills from junior outside hitter Jade Dawson and Verdugt evened the set at 19-19, but the Lady Dragons went on a 6-1 run to close the match.
Christman finished with nine kills and four blocks, while King added six kills and eight blocks. Junior setter Samantha Bell played through an injured thumb to hand out 27 assists, while sophomore middle hitter Allison Powers had four kills and two aces.
Rineker said this is the most proud he’s been of a team he’s coached because it didn’t come in as the favorite like the last few years.
It isn’t inconceivable to think both teams could meet in this round again next year as each squad loses just one senior.
But for now, the Lady Bruins – especially Kinder – can enjoy the type of season few outside the program thought was likely.
“It was something I didn’t expect because we were such a young team,” Kinder said. “Every practice was fun, every game was fun and I’m so proud of our team that we made it this far.”
Ryan O’Gara can be reached at 270-505-1754 or firstname.lastname@example.org.