Note: This recap appears in the Thursday, Sept. 19 newspaper on Page A6.
ALBANY — The Vinton County Vikings walked out of the visiting locker room at Alexander High School to a hero’s welcome, as fans showered applause onto the smiling players.
The Vikings then posed for team pictures with their coaching staff, family and fellow students, a throng of camera phones capturing their every move.
The Vikings didn’t win a championship on Tuesday, but they took a giant step towards one after winning at a locale that was previously nearly impossible to find success at.
Vinton County won a first-place showdown at the Alley at Alexander, taking a five-set victory — 25-23, 20-25, 29-27, 20-25, 15-13 — against the Spartans.
“This is huge,” seventh-year Vinton County coach Ashley Graves said. “Playing volleyball when I was in high school, Alexander has always been a rival. They’ve always had a good program. Coaching 10 years total, it’s huge. That feeling, it’s amazing.”
The win moves the Vikings to 12-1 overall, and 6-0 in the Tri-Valley Conference Ohio Division.
The Spartans — defending champions of the TVC-Ohio — fell to 10-2 overall and 5-1 in league play. Their 18-match TVC-Ohio winning streak was snapped.
The win was significant to land the current Vikings in first place. From a historical standpoint, the Vikings broke a losing streak to Alexander that stretched more than 30 matches.
Alexander volleyball rose to prominence in 2003, winning 10 league titles and 10 district titles since that season. The Spartans had never lost to the Vikings in at least the previous 16 seasons before Tuesday’s thriller.
“It’s just special,” Graves said. “These kids work hard and they deserve it. They come in on Sundays. They come in on Saturdays and they work hard every day of the year.”
The Vikings had plenty of heroes on Tuesday, but setter Cameron Zinn and outside hitter Sydney Smith — both sophomores — stepped to the plate during the decisive fifth set.
Zinn started the set by picking up her 1,000th career assist, and the match briefly stopped to celebrate the accomplishment.
Fittingly enough, Zinn’s milestone assist came to Smith, who took the match over when it counted.
Smith had seven of her team-high 23 kills in the fifth set, while Zinn finished the match with 52 assists.
Graves said that Smith battled through a shoulder injury against Alexander.
“Moving her to the outside this year and that transition, she’s worked really hard adjusting to that and done so well,” Graves said. “It’s been great having her out there swinging hard and putting the ball down for us.”
The Vikings needed all the offense it could get to counteract Alexander standout junior Karsyn Raines.
Raines, the reigning TVC-Ohio Offensive MVP, finished the match with 42 kills.
“She comes through in a pinch,” Alexander coach Nikki Ohms said. “She plays very smart volleyball and the kid can swing hard. She knows where to place it.”
Raines tested Vinton County’s defense in every way possible, dropping shots deep in the corner, in the middle of the court or powering shots through the Vikings’ block at the net.
“She’s a great player,” Graves said. “You have to give her all the credit. She played a fantastic game, hitting the ball from everywhere on the floor, jumping out of the world practically.
“We know nine times out of 10 they’re going to her,” she continued. “So just making sure we play our defense around her, wherever she is and keeping our eye on her the whole time and the girls did a really good job of that in the fifth set, knowing where she was.”
The Vikings trailed early in the fifth set 4-2 after three kills from Raines.
The Zinn-to-Smith connection took over, giving Vinton County a lead it would not relinquish.
Smith had four kills in a five-point stretch, allowing the Vikings to lead 7-4. Smith’s ace pushed the lead up to 10-6, and the advantage was still four points at 12-8 after Maylea Huff’s block at the net. The Vikings led 13-8 after Josie Hembree’s ace, but Alexander started a comeback from there.
A Raines kill was sandwiched between a couple of Viking attack errors, and the lead was down to 13-11, forcing Graves to use a timeout.
Huff’s kill put the Vikings on match point, leading 14-11.
Raines came through with her 42nd and final kill of the night, then an attack error allowed the Spartans to pull within 14-13.
Alexander didn’t find the equalizer though. Vikings’ libero Kerrigan Ward passed an Alexander serve up to Zinn, who found Smith on the outside.
She powered down a final kill that Alexander’s defense was unable to return, and the Vikings had finally found a way to knock off the Spartans on the volleyball court.
“Finishing in five, Cameron getting her thousandth assist tonight, it’s just a special night,” Graves said.
The Vikings showed a potent and balanced offensive attack. Huff and Lacy Ward each finished with 11 kills, while Kiefer had 10 kills. Zinn added three kills to go with her assists.
“They had a lot of options,” Ohms said. “Playing a team like that, you’ve got to shut down some of those options. We didn’t do it to start off quick like we normally do, and I think that hurt us a little bit.”
All three of the sets won by the Vikings were dripping with drama. They led the opening set 20-14 before seeing Alexander run off eight consecutive points to lead 22-20 after a Raines kill.
The young Vikings didn’t buckle under the pressure, rallying back to lead 24-22 after Lacy Ward’s ace, and taking the 25-23 win after Alexander hit a ball into the net.
Alexander tied the match with a 25-20 second set win, but were stunned by the Vikings in the third set.
The Spartans appeared to be in control after Jenna Houpt’s kill put them ahead 24-22.
The Vikings would fight off five set points in the match, forcing ties at 24-24, 25-25, 26-26 and finally 27-27 after Smith’s kill.
Kiefer and Zinn combined for a block at the net for a 28-27 lead. Huff then served up an ace to allow the Vikings to celebrate the 29-27 win, and 2-1 lead in the match.
“I think if we don’t come back in that set, we lose the momentum,” Graves said. “We go into the fourth just not pushing, not on top. Volleyball is so mental and it’s such a mental game and momentum game. That was crucial and that got us going.”
Alexander took care of business in the fourth set, leading 24-13 on the way to a 25-20 victory, setting the stage for the fifth-set exploits.
“I think that we over played a little bit,” Ohms said. “We tend to get aggressive and over play positions instead of kind of counting on trusting your team to do their job.”
Jadyn Mace handed out 53 assists and had six kills for Alexander. Houpt finished with six kills and Erin Scurlock five kills.
Serving ended up playing a big role in the Vikings’ win. The Spartans finished with just four aces, compared to 15 for the Vikings. Smith had five aces, while Lacy Ward and Huff each had three.
“I think if we had we had some better passing tonight, especially in our serve-receive, we could have had a lot more (offensive) options,” Ohms said.
The Spartans will be forced to regroup after losing their first league match in nearly two years. They travel to River Valley on Thursday, and will make a return trip to Vinton County on Oct. 1.
“Everybody is beatable,” Ohms said. “A lot of good teams out there. Lot of good competition that we’re going to face, but we’re pushing the girls this year. We know that they’re capable of great things. We have a lot of work to do.”
The Vikings are now in the driver’s seat of the TVC-Ohio, and will travel to Nelsonville-York on Thursday. They’ll be tasked with moving on from one of the biggest wins in recent program history as they try to chase down a league championship.
“We have to make sure we stay focused,” Graves said. “Stay ready. Everybody’s going to have a target on our back now. We have to make sure we keep pushing and doing the little things right and working together.”