WAVERLY — The Alexander Spartans faced a giant challenge in their quest for a district championship.
That obstacle came in the form of Westfall middle hitters Kristin Phillips and Marissa Mullins.
The duo combined for 33 kills, powering No. 4 Westfall to a 3-1 win (24-26, 25-20, 25-17, 25-17) win over No. 3 Alexander in a Division III district final on Saturday at Waverly High School.
The result denied Alexander of a spot in the regional tournament, ending its season with a 20-4 record.
“They have two strong middles,” Alexander coach Natalie Lucas said. “You get against teams and sometimes you’ll see one strong middle, or you’ll see someone with a strong outside. Westfall had two strong middles that were both a challenge blocking wise for us.”
Phillips led the way with 21 kills and two aces. She usually came up with a big play, whether it was a block or kill at the net, or a pass from the back row.
“I felt like Phillips was solid all the way around,” Lucas said. “Even in serve receive today. She’s a great player.”
Mullins and Hailey Young each added 12 kills for the Mustangs (19-4), while Ashley Hegarty added eight kills. Claire Latham had 53 assists, and plenty of options at the net.
The loss was not only the end of the season for the Spartans, but the final matches for seniors Karsyn Raines, Jadyn Mace, Brooke Casto and Erin Scurlock.
All four played as freshmen and were the backbone of a program that was in the district championship round for the third time in four seasons. Alexander went 75-23 over their careers.
“I don’t know how we could possibly fill their shoes,” Lucas said. “They have all been contributors over four years playing here.”
The group also helped navigate a coaching change during the COVID-19 pandemic, as Lucas was in her first year leading the way for the Spartans.
“This year was an especially strange year for everyone, with everything that’s going on in the world and with this pandemic, and I don’t think that I’ve ever had a group of kids put the team before themself more than this group that I’ve coached,” Lucas said. “That says something about this group’s character and it says something about the leadership of these four seniors and they’re going to be terribly missed.”
The Spartans were playing in the district finals for the 14th time in the last 18 seasons, matching up against the Mustangs numerous times during that stretch. It looked like the two volleyball powers were ready to lock into an epic back-and-forth battle after the first set.
There were 10 ties and three lead changes in the opening set, Alexander leading 24-22 after Raines’ ace.
Westfall came back to tie it at 24-24 thanks to Young’s kill and ace.
Alexander struck first though, winning 26-24 after a pair of Westfall attack errors.
The Spartans had the early upper hand, but couldn’t sustain that success after the dramatic early victory.
“I was hoping we would take that momentum from the first set into the second set, and we just dug ourselves into holes early in the remainder of the sets,” Lucas said.
Westfall didn’t immediately take control in the second set. Alexander forced an 11-11 tie after a service error, and trailed just 13-12 after a Casto kill.
The tide started to turn after consecutive Phillips kills pushed Westfall ahead 15-12, forcing Lucas to call timeout.
Young had a kill and an ace for an 18-14 lead, as the Mustangs slowly pulled ahead.
The Spartans were within 22-19, but got no closer. The Mustangs pulled out the 25-20 win to even the match.
While it wasn’t yet known at the time, Westfall had permanently flipped momentum into its favor.
The Mustangs raced ahead 4-0 in the third set. When Alexander closed to within 7-6, Westfall quickly pushed the advantage back to 16-9 after a Hegarty kill.
Alexander again closed to 18-16, only to fall 25-17. Phillips had two kills and an ace in the closing 7-1 flurry.
“Westfall did a great job in serve receive and defensively, of running an offense on the net,” Lucas said. “We were very out of system, and they did a much better job of staying in system and were aggressive.”
Alexander’s only lead of the fourth set came at 1-0, as Lauren Daniels’ ace allowed Westfall to lead 5-1.
The Spartans were trying desperately to stay in the match, but a run of five straight points was capped by another Phillips kill, and Alexander trailed 17-7.
Raines had a run of three consecutive kills to cut the deficit to 19-14, but they proved to be the final of her career. Mullins had a pair of kills for a 24-17 lead, and a Spartan attack error led to the final point for Westfall.
The Mustangs received their district championship trophy after the match, as they get a rematch against Adena in the regional tournament on Thursday.
Adena won the Scioto Valley Conference title in the regular season, with Westfall finishing second in the league standings.
Mace finished with 28 assists for Alexander, while Casto had five kills and five aces. Scurlock and Lexie Grissett each had three kills, while Macey Jordan had a pair of kills.
Raines had 17 kills and an ace in her final match. A Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division Offensive MVP as a sophomore and junior, Raines is one of the best players to come through Alexander’s program. She led the team in kills each of the last four seasons.
She joined her older sisters, Meghan and Lauren, as TVC MVPs in volleyball. Raines was all over the court again on Saturday, diving to try and keep a play alive or flying through the air to put down a kill.
Lucas only coached Raines for one season, but she said she’s known her much longer than that.
“I have known Karsyn since she was tiny,” Lucas said. “Her dad (Lee Raines) was my high school coach for a few years and I watched all of her sisters come up through the program. She has been so impactful. She does a lot for us, plays all the way around and is solid. Her leadership is going to be greatly missed. I can’t wait to hopefully go watch her play in college and dominate somewhere because I think she will. She is like having a little mini coach out on the court. She does a nice job for us and she’ll be missed.”