Last game of the regular season. A rivalry match that gets amplified by the visiting Mercy Jaguars team coming into the match at 32-0, dropping only three sets along the way and holding the nation’s and state’s No. 1 ranking.
Add brothers Eric and Todd Garvey as the opposing coaches and you have the recipe for one incredible event.
Throw in Sacred Heart junior setter Anna Zwiebel, who put forth the best performance of the year in Kentucky prep volleyball, and you see how the underdog Valkyries prevailed over the mighty Jaguars19-25, 25-23, 25-23, 25-27, 15-10.
And to think that it looked like a clunker at the beginning, with the home side Sacred Heart (21-12) team handing Mercy its first eight points of the match on errors. Net violations, serves in the net, hits out of bounds, nothing went right for the Valkyries early in the match.
Or so it seemed.
“We challenged the girls to come out swinging,” Eric, the Sacred Heart coach, said. “We wanted to be aggressive with our serves, our swings and our blocks. We knew who they were, what they’ve done this year and their ranking, but every time we step on the floor we want to compete. We’ve got a young team, but we’ve gotten better all year. We stayed in the game mentally and kept our composure all night.”
Mercy (32-1) grabbed a 13-5 lead in the opening set, with the Jaguars superb senior outside hitter Merideth Jewell scoring four of those via three kills and a block. But the Valkyries hung around and closed the Jaguars lead to five points on six separate occasions only to drop that set 25-19. Mercy barely broke a sweat as 16 of their 25 points came from Sacred Heart errors.
“I thought we started off the game great, we really played well in the first game and a half,” Todd said of his Mercy team. “But the momentum totally shifted in that second game and we never got it back. We didn’t play like ourselves the rest of the night. Give them credit, though. Sacred Heart played a great match. We’ve played 33 games this year and to have an off night just once out of those 33 games isn’t bad. We’ll just focus on the postseason now.”
The Jaguars looked to be cruising to a second set win when they took a commanding 21-14 lead in that frame.
Then came “The Boom!”
No, it wasn’t Russdiculous and Peyton Siva and the Louisville basketball team carving up teams on its way to a national championship in 2013.
It was a surging ten point run led by Zwiebel, who had a phenomenal stat line for the evening: 43 assists, 8 kills, 4 blocks and 10 digs. Simply put, she carried her team to victory.
She started the rally with a kill from her setter’s position. Then, she served nine straight points to give the Valkyries a 24-21 lead, recording an ace serve and dishing out five assists in that stretch. And though Mercy scored two in a row to pull within 24-23, the Valkyries forced a hitting error to take the second set 25-23.
Mercy couldn’t ever reclaim momentum after that.
“We knew we had to serve aggressively and if we missed some, so be it,” Eric said. “They’ve got a great setter and big hitters and we knew we couldn’t give them an easy pass. We didn’t miss too many (serves) and that one time Anna did get really hot. And that gets them (Mercy) rattled too, and momentum is huge in this sport.”
The Valkyries took that momentum into the third set as they turned a 13-12 deficit into a 17-13 lead with a mini-boom of six straight points including two blocks from Zwiebel. Later, two kills from Hammons and an ace serve from senior defensive specialist Makinzie Kellerman closed out that set for a 25-23 SHA win.
Showing its front-running tendencies again, Mercy took a 16-7 lead in the fourth set only to surrender 10-2 run to the Valkyries that closed the gap to 18-17. Two kills from junior middle blocker Ashton Meckle closed out the set at 27-25 and squared the match at 2-2.
In the decisive set, Sacred Heart grabbed the momentum early and took a 10-5 lead. But Jewell recorded two kills and the Jaguars got within two at 10-8, setting the stage for the play of the match.
A long rally gave both teams an opportunity to score, and just when it looked like Mercy would win the point, Zwiebel, with her long reach and delicate hands, made a play that few could make.
“I saw that it was going out and I just wanted to at least try to get it and maybe psych them (the Mercy defense) out,” Zwiebel recalled. “I just used everything I had and went up to just try to keep it in. I was so excited after that.”
To clarify, she reached over the net, near the antenna and got her fingertips to redirect the ball that was going at least two feet wide of the sideline. Her touch put the ball down in play for a huge point and an 11-8 Valkyries lead that they never relinquished. Game. Set. Match.
Zwiebel’s performance ranks among the best of the best. To have a hand in 56 of her team’s 109 total points against the No. 1 team in the nation qualifies as such.
But beyond the scoring, the blocking and the assists, was her poise; her leadership of a young, inexperienced group of players who have come a long way since they were blanked by this Mercy team on August 24. Back then, it was a resounding 25-19, 25-18, 25-14 win for the Jaguars.
What a difference eight weeks makes.
“We’ve got a whole lot of sophomores playing and even some older ones who haven’t had this type of match experience,” Eric said. “It’s maturity. Hopefully we’re peaking at the right time.”
Since that early season loss, the Valkyries have shown steady improvement. And while all facets of their game have improved, it’s been the rock solid talent of Zwiebel leading them to the next level. The sets were sublime all night: perfectly placed, perfectly timed and served on a platter for her hitters to pound.
“They have such a great defense and blocking that I needed to hold their block a little with my kills,” Zwiebel said of her added offensive punch. “I tried to deliver the perfect set and it was there tonight.”
On the receiving end of all those sets were sophomores Paige Hammons (17 kills, 3 blocks) and Lauryn Bennett (16 kills, 1 block), a high-flying left hander, and senior Julia Boswell (8 kills). And the defense backing up all of that offense, led by senior libero Sydney Shearn and her 36 digs, was superb.
Jewell and Lexie Hamrick led the Jaguars with 16 kills apiece, while Devon Rachel notched 14. Junior setter Morgan Elmore finished with 51 assists, 17 in the fourth set alone, and libero Nikki Koval led the defense with 25 digs.
“This year has been completely different than years past,” Shearn said of the maturing Valkyries team. “We stuck to our game plan, worked together and I’m so proud of everyone for making this happen tonight. It’s awesome to end our senior year with this win.”