Outside the Woodrow Wilson gymnasium Saturday it was a warm September day. Inside, however, it could have been mistaken for the second week of November in the Charleston Coliseum and Convention Center.
That was because the championship tilt of the Shirley Brown Invitational between Class AAA volleyball powerhouse George Washington and Class AA Shady Spring resembled a state tournament-type atmosphere.
Unfortunately for the Lady Tigers, their valiant effort against the Lady Patriots fell just short, again.
After dropping last year’s final to eventual Class AAA state champion Spring Valley, Shady had another close call with the title, falling this time to George Washington in three sets.
“We obviously still have some work to do, but to come out in September and play like we did today is really good,” Shady Spring head coach Kelly Williams said, “I feel like this is the story of my life here at this tournament. We are young. Hopefully we will keep getting stronger and getting more in shape so we can finish those big games.”
Shady and GW finished 5-1 in pool play earlier in the day, with both teams sweeping two games each from Parkersburg South and Cabell Midland.
The early pool play battle between the two finalists was a glimpse of things to come later in the day. Shady took game one and had game two in hand, only to see George Washington come back for a 26-24 win and gain the split.
In set one of the best-of-three final, the Lady Tigers fell behind 5-2 before they ripped off seven straight points for a 9-5 lead. The Lady Patriots chipped away and battled back to tie the set at 16-apiece.
Back-to-back kills from Olivia Barnett and Kelsie Dangerfield sparked a 4-0 run for Shady, which went on to win the first set 25-22.
Set two, however, belonged to the strong front line of the Lady Patriots, which pushed them out to a quick 15-7 lead. Shady battled back to within three points, but that was as close as it would get.
“As long as I have coached, I have been blessed with big hitters and this year is no different,” veteran George Washington head coach Missy Smith said. “As long as we can keep the ball in play and get it to them, I like our front line most of the time.”
Two straight kills from Nyla Birch and two blocks from Maya Harris ignited a 9-1 run for GW, which took set two 25-14. Birch was a thorn in Shady’s side all day.
“(Nyla) got a big block every time we needed it and a kill every time we needed it,” Smith said. “She was definitely clutch today.”
The deciding third set was played to 15 and Shady jumped on the Lady Patriots to take a 9-3 lead behind solid net work from Barnett, Dangerfield and freshman Meg Williams.
The Lady Patriots never panicked and came storming back for 15-12 win with Birch dominating play at the end of the set.
“We had a starter go down with about 45 minutes left in practice (Friday). The lineup we ran today, we only got to practice for about a half an hour yesterday,” Smith said. “It is a testament to our girls and how hard they work. They are ready for the next girl to step up and they believe in each other, no matter what six are out on the floor at anytime.”
While the loss was frustrating, Williams had nothing but praise for her team.
“We have such a young team and for them to come out and perform like that against such high quality teams, we are really proud of them today,” Williams said.
Greenbrier East and Woodrow Wilson both advanced to the eight-team single elimination portion of the tournament and as fate would have it, they met each other in the quarterfinals. In a spirited battle between the two longtime rivals, Woodrow beat East 25-22 and 25-19.
Making the quarterfinals was a successful day for the Lady Spartans. according to head coach Matt Sauvage.
“We were kind of curious, as coaches, how it would look coming into today,” Sauvage said. “We are looking at this season as a hill and we have to climb the hill. We know we are towards the bottom of the hill right now. With that being said, I will take today. From where I thought we would be and where we are, we are ahead of schedule. I am excited; the girls played hard.”
Woodrow Wilson fell to Shady Spring in the semifinals 25-20 and 25-18, but head coach Bre Rhodes was also pleased with her team, which opens the season with some new pieces to the rotation.
“I was really impressed with my team today,” Rhodes said. “It is a great place to start and build from. It was exactly what I wanted to see out of them today.”
Email: firstname.lastname@example.org and follow on Twitter @Rusman1981