Note: This recap appears in the Thursday, Oct. 10 newspaper on Page A6.
Athens assistant coach Ali Koga still had the adrenaline pumping shortly after the Bulldogs’ dramatic Senior Night match against the Meigs Marauders.
“I’m still a little jittery from that,” Koga explained.
And that was just the warmup act between the two Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division foes.
Athens won a 3-1 decision — 16-25, 25-17, 25-14, 31-29 — over Meigs on Tuesday inside McAfee Gymnasium.
The clinching fourth set was a marathon that saw Athens just barely avoid a deciding fifth set.
Koga had a reason to have frayed nerves, as the fourth set featured 16 ties and eight lead changes, as the Marauders fought to keep the match alive.
In the end, Athens survived by scoring the final three points after trailing 29-28.
“Mental toughness and that’s what I talked to them about,” said Koga, who was filling in on Tuesday for head coach Olivia Pokas. “This is the time to be mentally tough. If we don’t score, if we get down a point then you have to forget about that and play the next ball. Not get down. Positivity and mental toughness is really key in those situations.”
Athens (10-11, 6-5 TVC-Ohio) showed that mental toughness after falling behind 24-22 after three kills from Meigs’ Hannah Durst.
Athens was able to eventually tie the set at 24-24 on Summer Gilkey’s block at the net, and the two teams were just getting started.
Meigs (3-17, 2-9 TVC-Ohio) went back ahead 26-25 on another kill from Durst, but Athens would then lead 26-25 on a Gilkey kill.
The teams traded points until Meigs’ Mallory Hawley’s consecutive kills put Athens down 28-27.
A Meigs service error tied the game at 28-28, but an Athens attack error allowed Meigs to lead again, 29-28.
Athens showed its mental toughness from there. Sarah Webb set up Greta Gunderson on the outside, and the freshman put down a kill to tie the score, 29-29.
Senior Kyleigh Heller then served up an ace to put Athens on match point, 30-29.
Meigs had previously fought off two match points. The two teams exchanged volleys until the Marauders pushed a ball just out of play to the side.
The attack error allowed Athens to finally exhale, the 31-29 win in hand and the fifth set avoided.
Athens swept the regular season series with Meigs, but the two teams will see each other again. Athens will host Meigs on Monday in the Division II sectional tournament.
The two teams will be hard pressed to match Tuesday’s fourth set. It was set up by the Marauders taking the opening set, 25-16, behind seven early kills from Hawley.
Athens had enjoyed pregame festivities with Senior Night, but was quickly forced to regroup.
“I think just talking to them about bringing our energy level up, that’s what we talked about because we play so much better when we have energy and we’re positive,” Koga said. “So that’s mainly what we talked about in between games is getting mentally tough and having more energy and more positivity and it showed. They picked it up in the second game.”
The second set was tied at 10-10 before the Bulldogs pulled away. Webb had a kill and Grace Reed served up an ace, and Athens wouldn’t trail again in the set.
Athens then played some of its best volleyball of the season in the third set, with Webb at the service line.
Athens rolled out to a 12-0 lead with Webb serving up five aces during the stretch. Gilkey also added four kills during the run.
“She’s a great server,” Koga said of Webb. “She just kept putting them over and they couldn’t get them back.”
Hawley ended the streak with a kill, but senior Baelyn Carey would go to the line and serve up three aces of her own. The final one gave Athens a commanding 17-1 lead.
Meigs would rally back to only lose 25-14, but Athens still led in the match, setting up the back-and-forth fourth set.
Webb powered Athens. The senior handed out 29 assists, served up five aces and finished with six kills.
Webb and Gilkey worked well together at the net, as Gilkey finished with a team-high 12 kills.
“I thinks Sarah did a really nice job,” Koga said. “I think Summer did a really nice job as well in the middle. Had a lot of really nice hits, then we had some really nice blocks that were key in that fourth game between Mckenna Bruce and Summer Gilkey that really helped us stay in it.”
Carey also had eight kills and six aces for Athens, while Gunderson had seven kills.
Hawley led Meigs with a match-high 19 kills. Durst added 10 kills and four aces, while Jewels Conley had six aces. Breanna Zirkle had 29 assists.
The Bulldogs honored seniors Sarah Webb, Summer Gilkey, Baelyn Carey, Kyleigh Heller and Mckenna Bruce before the match. All five then contributed during the win, as Heller had a kill and two aces while Bruce had a kill.
“The seniors are really key for our program,” Koga said. “We have so many of them in the starting lineup. So many of them that are really pivotal players for what we’ve been doing this year. It was nice to be able to recognize them tonight and to have a win to go out on.”
Athens will travel to Nelsonville-York on Thursday to wrap up TVC-Ohio action, then will set its sights on the postseason.
The Marauders will once again be the opponent, as No. 10 Meigs will play at No. 7 Athens on Monday at 6 p.m. in a sectional quarterfinal game.
“We’ll just need to make sure that we’re prepared for Monday so that we can beat them again,” Koga said.