On the verge of fumbling away a crucial conference home game against Ocean Lakes, the Kellam girls volleyball team looked as relaxed as it had been all Tuesday night.
The Knights had watched a 2-0 set lead slip away and were left staring at an 8-6 deficit in the deciding fifth set.
Momentum had swung in Ocean Lakes’ favor.
Still, the players on the other side of the net didn’t panic. The Knights stuck to their business-as-usual script.
“We weren’t nervous,” said Savannah Marshall, the Knights’ junior libero. “We were ready for it.”
Feeding off Tori Morris’ four consecutive game-changing blocks, Kellam rallied for seven straight points to take a 13-8 lead and held on for a 15-12 victory.
For a Kellam team (20-2) that hadn’t faced much adversity to that point, the Knights’ coaches relayed a simple message to their players.
“Relax, have fun, play your game,” Kellam head coach Janice Johnson said to her team. “This was huge.”
A huge win indeed.
Tuesday’s victory was Kellam’s 11th straight, its second over Ocean Lakes (14-4) and, more importantly, a seeding boost in the region’s most competitive conference. Kellam is first in the 6A Conference 1, followed closely by Ocean Lakes and defending state champion First Colonial.
The Knights had reason to panic before the match even started; their leading outside hitter and senior captain, Katie Piper, was forced to sit after suffering an ankle injury in pre-game warm-ups.
Jessi Freeman, a junior who normally rotates as a defensive specialist, stepped in and finished with six kills, 10 digs and four service aces.
“It could be your moment at any time,” said Kellam assistant coach Chuck Lewis. “It’s the first thing we tell these girls. Anytime, be prepared. Jessi came in and assumed her role.”
Tuesday’s all-around showing was the epitome of Kellam’s season so far. Six players recorded kills, led by Morris and Anna Salasky’s 11 kills each. Madison Trypuc finished with 10 kills and four blocks.
Sophomore setter Lauren Baumgardner ran a versatile offensive show with 48 assists and three kills.
Defensively, Marshall — whom Johnson calls “probably the best libero in the state” — got her hands on nearly every playable loose ball. Finishing with 25 digs — including a handful of highlight reel ups — she consistently turned sure Dolphin kills into usable offensive possessions.
Ocean Lakes didn’t go quietly, though. The Dolphins entered the match winners of 10 straight and showed why they’re considered state title contenders.
They didn’t start well, however.
A plethora of un-Dolphin-like self-conflicted errors resulted in an early 2-0 set deficit. Ocean Lakes struggled to cover blocks, serve and hit in-bounds.
Frustrated and searching for answers, they finally woke up in the third set and nearly pulled off a monumental come-back road win.
Alisi Motu’apuaka, the junior setter, finished with 35 assists and three kills. Senior outside hitter Taylor Allbritten was the Dolphins’ answer in the clutch, delivering timely service aces (6) and kills (13).
Junior middle Danielle Hart got off to a slow start before finishing with 16 kills and six blocks. Liv Crawley, the junior outside hitter, added 16 kills and two blocks.
Based on both teams’ aspirations, Tuesday’s battle was a possible preview of a playoff rematch in November.
“It’s exciting to know what we’re capable of,” Kellam’s Marshall said. “We know what we have to do.”
Follow Joe Saade’s coverage of Virginia Beach high school sports on Twitter @SouthsideTeams. To submit story ideas, or to suggest players or teams to profile, email him at Joe@southsidedaily.com.