Eagles grounded: Cats rally to beat nemesis Eastern in volleyball

WATERFORD – The Waterford Wildcats and Eastern Eagles were tied atop the Tri-Valley Conference – Hocking Division standings going into Thursday’s match-up against each other at the Harry Cooper Annex.

Five sets later, Waterford sits alone at the top of the division as the Lady Wildcats rallied from a 2-1 deficit to win in five sets over the Eagles.

Waterford (10-2 overall, 8-0 TVC-Hocking) dropped the first and third sets 24-26, but won the second, fourth and fifth sets by scores 25-17, 25-11 and 15-8, respectively.

Facing defeat going into the fourth set, the Wildcats outscored Eastern 40-19 in the final two sets to pick up their first win over the Eagles since 2010.

“The thing with this team, of course we have a lot of seniors, we have a lot leadership. I think that they really are so mentally tough in situations like this that we’re able to get over the hump,” said Waterford head coach Jandy Drayer.

For Eastern, ranked No. 17 in the state in Division IV, it was the first conference loss in 39 games. The Eagles defeated Waterford three times each of the past two seasons, including wins in the district final which ended the Wildcats’ season in 2011 and 2012.

Needless to say, this was a much-needed triumph for Waterford.

“They fought so hard,” Drayer said of her bunch. “They did.”

The first set of the night was a nail-biter. It started off back and forth until Waterford built a 16-11 lead. Eastern’s Jordan Parker recorded a kill to make it 16-12, but Waterford’s Taylor Hilverding responded with a kill of her own to make it a 5-point game again.

After back-to-back serves out of bounds by each team made it 18-13, Eastern went on a 5-0 run to tie it up at 18-all.

Later, with the score knotted at 20-20, a Dani Drayer kill and an ace by Haley McCutcheon put the Wildcats up by two, but Eastern again answered with consecutive points to tie it back up.

Laura Hill then traded kills with Parker to make it 23-23 before Alyssa Miller bumped a perfectly-placed ball into no-man’s land to give Waterford a 24-23 lead. On the verge of losing the set, Eastern called a timeout, which apparently was just what the doctor ordered, as the Eagles responded by scoring the next three points to win the opening set 26-24.

The second set started out very similar, with both teams clawing back and forth. Tied up at 12-all, the ‘Cats went to work.

Drayer and Taylor Hilverding notched back-to-back kills followed by an ace by Maddy Sury to take a 15-12 lead. Eastern scored two in a row to make it a one-point game before Waterford took the next four points to pull ahead at 19-14.

Eastern would get as close as 20-17, but the Wildcats took the final five points, thanks to two kills apiece by McCutcheon and Sury, to win the set and tie things up at 1-all.

Eastern appeared to be pulling away with things in the third set, building a 22-17 advantage and gaining all the momentum.

It then became a 24-20 game in Eastern’s favor before Waterford battled back, as three kills in a row by Miller, Drayer and Hill tied it up at 24-24.

All that work went down the drain when a serve into the net and then a block by Eastern’s Erin Swatzel gave the Eagles a 26-24 set win. Waterford found itself in a 2-1 hole, with all the momentum on Eastern’s side.

In a moment where a lot of teams may have been emotionally and mentally defeated, the experienced Wildcat team bore down, kept its composure and absolutely dominated the final two sets.

They jumped out to a 13-3 lead in the set, and later, kills by Hilverding and Hill made it 21-8. Eastern fought back, as a block by Katie Keller cut the deficit in half at 22-11, but a kill by Hilverding and back-to-back aces by Hill made it 25-11 and sent the match into a fifth and final set.

“I told them ‘If you just give me everything you’ve got this last game, work your hearts out, be as tired as you want, we’ll have an easy practice (Friday),” Drayer said, laughing.

That was all the motivation the Wildcats needed.

Down 3-2, a pair of kills by McCutcheon and two aces by Hilverding put Waterford ahead 6-3. After an Eastern timeout, Waterford served it into the net to make it 6-4.

Sury then came up big for the Wildcats, recording kills on each of the team’s next three points make the score 10-6. Hilverding got a block before Parker answered with a kill to make it 11-7. Miller then assisted Drayer on a kill before a serve into the net made it 12-8. Then, Hilverding placed the ball where no Eastern player could reach it followed by an ace by Drayer to make it 14-8, before a double-hit by Eastern sealed the deal.

In the biggest match of the season so far, the Wildcats had a number of different players perform well, something their coach was very proud of.

“(Miller) was everywhere,” Drayer said. “We had a couple big kills out of Maddy, a couple big kills out of Laura. Dani kind of struggled off and on, then made big plays at the end. That’s what makes us solid and well-rounded is that we don’t have just one person that stands out.”

While the win puts Waterford in first place in the TVC-Hocking for now, Drayer acknowledged that it’s still early in the season.

“We still have a long way to go,” she said. “Fed(eral) Hock(ing)’s pretty good, Trimble’s pretty good, it’s so unpredictable.”

The Wildcats are back in action Monday at Federal Hocking. The JV match is scheduled for 6 p.m.