BLOOMFIELD — South Knox's volleyball team started strongly, rallied and battled for two hours in its Class 2A Eastern Greene Sectional first-round match with the host Thunderbirds.
But five minutes did the Spartans in. The combination of Bailee Tieman's serving and Riley Kieft's hitting fueled a 6-0 start to the fifth set and South Knox couldn't recover in Eastern's 13-25, 25-23, 25-20, 22-25, 15-7 victory.
The Spartans two seniors, Hallie Kirk and Lauren Loudermilk, led the team in hitting and passing. Kirk drilled 15 kills to go with four blocks. Loudermilk distributed 21 assists. Leah Ellemann produced nine kills and 22 digs; Savannah Benjamin eight kills; Kaitlyn Williams seven kills; Mallory Obermeyer six points, two aces, 23 digs; Rachel Stearns five points, seven digs; Kaylee Parrish five digs, eight assists; Bailey Kempfer nine digs; and Addy DeLisle seven digs.
The teams have similar records — Eastern (8-19) and South Knox (5-20) — and played similar games, where both teams' defenses made it difficult for a point to end. The match had 201 points and the T-birds had a 101-100 edge.
"It was evenly matched. We knew their strengths and weaknesses. My girls pushed as hard as they could. They just executed at the end of the game better than we did," Spartans coach Caryn Atkins said. "Our two seniors seemed like whenever we needed a point, they gave us a point. They were hard workers."
South Knox, after a dominant first set, faced elimination in the fourth set. The match was tied at 14 and 22, but Kirk's all-out hitting in the set spurred the Spartans. The senior had six of her kills in the set and her spikes gave the team its 24th and 25th point in a 25-22 victory.
Any momentum from that win disappeared quickly in the fifth set. Kieft's hitting in the front row proved to be too much for South Knox to combat. The seniors had 23 kills, three in a row in the fatal 6-0 start, and six kills in the set.
The closest the Spartans got in the set was 6-3 and 7-4.
The teams played in the regular season, with South Knox taking a three-set match in three sets. Atkins said she was well aware of Kieft's hitting game.
"We prepared for her, watched film of her. She seemed to hit everything the same way," Atkins said. "But in this match she seemed to open the chest and it was more than we were expecting. I still think we made her work hard for what she got."
The Spartans couldn't have wished for a better start. They never trailed in the first set and claimed eight of the final 10 points in a 25-13 first set. But the dominance was short-lived.
South Knox had an opportunity for a two-set lead. Obermeyer's four consecutive serves, which included an ace, allowed the Spartans to turn a 22-18 deficit into a 23-22 lead. But Kieft's kill and block gave the T-birds the lead and a South Knox hitting error evened the match at one set apiece.
The Spartans led 12-10 in the third set, but Kieft did damage again. Her kill tied the match at 13, then she stepped behind the service line and produced four consecutive points, the last two being aces, to give Eastern the lead for good at 17-13.
"We played with a lot of excitement at the start, but that wore off," Atkins said. "They made adjustments to help them, and then we made adjustments."
Atkins noted that her team had a hitting weakness, but did a good job of making up for it.
"We don't have the big hitter, but we have girls who gave us a lot of variety," she said. "We worked and talked a lot about being patient and executing. I was proud of how the girls competed and their effort.
"I know we didn't win a lot of matches, but we played in a lot of four and five set matches. That probably helped us in this match in the way we competed, worked and helped each other," Atkins said. "We have a lot of juniors and going through a match like this in the tournament is going to be a good learning experience going into next year."