HENRY — If the Seneca High School volleyball team thought it knew Putnam County, having faced it three times already this season, the Lady Panthers squad it saw in the championship match of the Tri-County Conference Tournament was nowhere near the same. SHS coach Noah Champene acknowledged PC was "a completely different team" due to the return from injury of setter Madison Solomon.
But as it turned out, even with the Granville club at full strength, there was little that could be done to stop the Lady Irish, not on Thursday night.
Two key service runs — one of four points by senior Gillian Culbreth in the first set and a five-point burst by classmate Molly Baker in the second — and 10 kills by all-tournament choice Lexi Greve provided enough spark to send No. 3-seeded Seneca to a 25-15, 25-17 victory over the No. 5 Panthers and its first conference title in its first year in the league.
"This was a battle," said Champene, whose club against PC split an early two-set match then twice won handily, with the absence of Solomon a contributing factor to the ease of those decisions. "(Solomon) is one of their best players, if not their best player, and she totally changes the dynamic of their team. They were really tough and we had to play one of the best games we've played all year to come out this way ... It felt tonight like just when we needed it, we were able to go on a little serving run or hitting run at just the right time.
"The hitters did a great job, that starts with the passing as always ... The score was closer in each set than the score indicates, and everyone played a part to get us this win."
Also on Thursday, the Marquette Lady Crusaders got monster service runs from Hannah Cowie and Emma Thomas to take third place, the No. 2 seed taking a surprisingly easy 25-15, 25-10 win from Cinderella eighth-seeded Henry-Senachwine. In the consolation title match, No.7 seed Midland rallied to surprise the No. 1 seed, Roanoke-Benson, 12-25, 25-19, 25-23 in the final-night opener.
Lady Irish win the title
Seneca was the aggressor from the start, taking a 6-2 lead on a kill by Greve, who was joined by teammate Hannah Berg (5 kills) with the all-tourney honor. However, after Putnam County bounced back to tie the score at 6-6, a Lady Panthers error brought Culbreth to the service line for her decisive run. A pair of aces around two more PC miscues gave the Irish the lead it would hold through the see-saw remainder of the opening set.
Only twice did a team score consecutive points until Berg got a tip for sideout and then a kill to start the game-closing six-point run at the line by Baker, the final point coming on a shoot to the back corner by the senior setter herself.
Putnam County (14-12-1) put up more of a fight in the second game, using a pair of kills by the all-tourney tandem of Solomon to Skylar Grevengoed to spark a four-point, lead-grabbing run by Savannah Tucker. The margin stood at 12-10 PC when Baker fired off another shoot for sideout, then served up five straight points, two of them aces and two on kills by Berg and Grace Alley (7 kills) to make it 16-12 Irish. Putnam County got back within 16-15, but Seneca collected the next seven points, with two kills by Alley and a pair from Greve widening the gap to 23-15.
"The girls played a good tournament," said PC coach Amy Bell. "Tonight, we just didn't come to play and Seneca ran good offense and has some hitters outside that are tough to stop. Tonight just wasn't our night to stop them, no matter what we tried."
Marquette takes third
The Lady Crusaders (20-9) looked like they were in a similar tight battle with host Henry-Senachwine, at least until the opening set reached an 11-11 tie. That's when Cowie scored a sideout kill, stepped to the service line and reeled off the next 11 points to give the locals a commanding 23-11 edge. Included in the burst were two aces and a pair of kills from all-tourney pick Aubrey McCallum, who later notched the game-ender from the line.
Set 2 started the way the first once ended, as far as Marquette was concerned. After a sideout, Thomas fired off a streak of 12 consecutive points, among them six aces and two kills from Grace Jeanblanc, for a 13-0 Cru lead. So strong was MA's serving that the Lady Mallards' two all-tourney selections, Grace Condit and Brynn Weidman, totaled just three kills.
"I went into the lockerroom and told the girls that serving will win or lose games, and tonight it won it for us," said MA coach Mindy McConnaughhay. "We came out very timid at first and I was kinda nervous because it's been a long week and you could see some of the wear-and-tear on the girls ... but they perked up, they served aggressively and we definitely held on to the momentum once we got it ... Cowie took control in the first game and after that, everyone just followed."
Said Lady Mallards (11-17) coach Rita Self, "We struggled passing tonight, for sure. Our serve receive was not great, which caused our offense to bog downs and when we did bring it up, our passes were either way off the net or super tight to the net. We were never able to get in a rhythm ... And Marquette served really well. That jump server, No. 24 (Thomas), she's tough."
* Also named to the all-tournament team, along with the aforementioned, were Woodland's Kaitlyn Walter, Roanoke-Benson's Kamryn Kearfott and Brynn Rossman, Peoria Christian's Allie Evans and Midland's Riley Grandsart.