It was set up as truly a ‘David vs Goliath’ matchup in terms of school size. University Heights Academy is one of the smallest schools competing in the Kentucky High School Athletic Association, while McCracken County is at the far opposite end of the spectrum as one of the biggest high schools in the state.
The question going into Monday night’s matchup between the Lady Blazers and the Lady Mustangs in the opening round of the state volleyball tournament was whether or not David could plant another one right between Goliath’s eyes. But sometimes in the sporting world, it turns out Goliath has a few stones in his sling too.
Led by a stellar performance from their All-State player Addison Hart, the Lady Mustangs ended a historic season for University Heights taking the opening round state tournament match in three hard-fought sets 25-21, 25-22, and 25-21 in front a loud and raucous packed house that had Blazer Gym rocking for most of the night.
McCracken County started the match by jumping out to an 8-3 lead in the opening set. Senior Olivia Griffith was a big part of the hot start for McCracken County. With Julia Thomas rotated off, the Lady Mustangs were able to push the lead out to 13-6 and it looked as if McCracken would roll through the opening set.
The Lady Blazers would get Thomas back on the floor and with some big plays from the 2nd Region Player of the Year, along with Chayse Gilliland and Olivia Oakley, University Heights would find its footing, but the early big lead would be a bit too much to overcome in the first set. The Lady Blazers would close to within four on a couple of occasions and then pushed to within three at 24-21 but then Griffith came up with one of her three kills in the set to give the Lady Mustangs the 25-21 win and a one set to none lead.
Olivia Oakley and Chayse Gilliland had four kills each for the Lady Blazers. Julia Thomas added three, along with two blocks.
The second set started off much like the first. This time it was Mabrey Perdue who lent a helping hand to Addison Hart as the Lady Mustangs pushed out to an early 5-1 lead.
UHA, led by a trio of kills from junior Olivia Oakley, started working to get back into the set, and when Claire Chewning came up with her third kill of the set, the Lady Blazers had tied the set at 13-13. Moments later, an Olivia Oakley ace put University Heights on top for the first time in the match at 16-15. Not long after, Julia Thomas knocked down a big block giving UHA a 21-19 lead, and the large contingent of Lady Blazer fans, led by a wound-up student section, roared its approval.
But give the Lady Mustangs their due, like they would all throughout the match, when they needed a big play to stem the tide of a Lady Blazer rally, they found a way to come up with one, or two, or three. A kill from Olivia Griffith, an ace for Addison Hart, and a key service error for the Lady Blazers were enough to put McCracken back in the lead and carry the Lady Mustangs to a 25-22 win and a two set to none lead in the match.
Addison Hart had a big set for McCracken with three kills and three aces. The Lady Mustangs also got some big plays from Aubrey Hill.
Olivia Oakley and Claire Chewning had big plays in the first half of the set, but McCracken was able to keep that duo from being a factor coming down the stretch.
With their backs against the wall, the Lady Blazers came out and went toe-to-toe with the Lady Mustangs as the third set got underway. With Julia Thomas, Olivia Oakley, and Sarah Peebles leading the effort, the Lady Blazers got to the front early in the set, holding leads at 5-3 and 9-7. But the Lady Mustangs are no strangers to the pressure of state tournament competition.
McCracken County responded with a 6 point run to take a 13-9 lead and seize some momentum. However, UHA was not quite ready to throw in the towel. Olivia Oakley and Chayse Gilliland combined for kills on four straight points to even things up at 14-14. The Lady Blazers would tie the match up again at 17-17, but after the six-point run earlier in the set, UHA would not be able to get back to the lead again.
With McCracken holding a tentative 21-20 lead Addison Hart did what All-State players do. On consecutive points, Hart seemed to elevate just a little bit more and delivered two thunderous kills that were just enough to deliver the knockout blow to the Lady Blazers, turning a one-point lead into a 23-20 lead. Appropriately enough, it would then be Hart that ended the match with one more putaway as the Lady Mustangs took the set 25-21 and the match three sets to none.
The core of next year’s UHA team finished with a strong set. Junior Olivia Oakley and 8th grader Chayse Gilliland had four kills and three kills respectively, but it would just not be enough to deny the Lady Mustangs in the final set.
Chayse Gilliland finished the night with 10 kills for the Lady Blazers. Olivia Oakley added nine. McCracken County did a good job at limiting opportunities for Julia Thomas, still, she ended up with six kills in her final match. Sarah Peebles wrapped up her career of setting the table for her teammates with 26 assists.
UHA finishes the season at 36-3 and while the loss is disappointing to the young ladies on the team, there would be nothing for this crew to hang their heads about.
The Lady Blazers set a new program record for team wins, losing just one set in 2nd Region competition. They swept every match during the 8th District and 2nd Region tournaments. They won the 2nd Region All A Classic and reached the semifinals of the All A state tournament. Their only losses during the regular season came to Apollo and Presentation, with the loss to Apollo being avenged later in the season.
McCracken County improved to 27-11 with the win and moves on to the state quarterfinals where they will face a monstrous challenge in the form of Notre Dame, who cruised to an easy three-set win at Campbell County.