While there were many uncertainties entering Tuesday night’s VHSL Class-3 volleyball semifinal between the Hidden Valley Titans and Rustburg Red Devils, one thing was a given.
Something had to give.
Consider the specifics: Hidden Valley entered the night with a perfect 27-0 record in best-of-five regular season matches, their only setbacks coming from a pair of showcase exhibitions earlier in the year against perennial West Virginia powerhouse Musselman. Rustburg rolled into Southwest Roanoke County sitting at 26-0 in the regular season, their only hiccup likewise coming in a showcase exhibition.
Rustburg was the defending Class-3 state champion from the 2020 pandemic-delayed championship held in April, knocking off the Titans in the semifinals. The Red Devils also ended Hidden Valley’s season in the 2019 state quarterfinals. The Titan were looking for payback.
Yep, something had to give.
When the dust had settled Tuesday night; 5 sets, 2 1/4 hours and 204 points after the opening serve, Rustburg managed to hold off a furious rally from Hidden Valley and provide just enough push in the fifth-set, first-to-15-point overtime to come away with the 25-19; 25-23; 15-25; 20-25; 15-12 victory.
The Hidden Valley gym was packed with fans from both schools, and when courtside announcer Dave Ross bellowed after the player introductions, “Are you ready for some volleyball?,” the entire gym turned into a raucous group of supporters screaming and cheering every point.
Match was on, and a classic was about to unfold.
Rustburg looked ready to make this a quick night when they took the first two sets. In the first, the teams exchanged points to a 10-10 tie before Rustburg pulled ahead 16-13 midway. Titan superstar Cam Davenport blistered a kill through the Red Devil defense to cut the Hidden Valley deficit to 16-14, but Rustburg went on a 6-1 run to forge ahead 21-15. Hidden Valley got no closer than 3 points the rest of the way.
In the second set, Hidden Valley jumped out to a 4-1 lead before the Devils clawed their way back to a 7-7 tie and eventually went up 11-8. Rustburg was up 13-12 before going on a 9-4 run to lead 22-16. Davenport fueled a Titan rally with her serve to close the Hidden Valley deficit to 22-20. Rustburg scored twice to get to set point and Hidden Valley answered with three straight to close to 24-23. But, the next Titan serve was brought up and set to Rustburg 5ft.-9 senior outside hitter Kate Hardie who drilled a kill that couldn’t be handled for set-point.
Hidden Valley, with its back to the wall, rallied like champions in the third set. They rolled out to a 18-10 lead and never looked back, going up 22-14 before freshman sensation Caleigh Ponn closed the 10-point win with a service point. The fourth set was much the same as the Titans rallied from an early 3-point deficit to tie things at 9 before pushing their lead to seven at 21-14. Rustburg got no closer than 4 the rest of the way. Rustburg suddenly was on the ropes and the Titans had all the momentum.
“We started making unforced errors in the third and fourth sets and it showed,” Rustburg head coach Kristen Hardie noted afterward. “Plus, Cam got hot and was on fire with her kills. She had a lot in those two sets. Hidden Valley was fired up and we were really struggling.”
The fifth set saw Hidden Valley take leads of 3-2 and 4-3 before a Rustburg push and Davenport kill tied things at 6. The service prowess of Red Devil sophomore Emma Blankinshop led to five straight Rustburg points and a 11-6 Devil advantage. Hidden Valley would close to 13-11 on Ponn’s ace and Rustburg scored on a Harfdie laser to get to match point. The Titans again answered with a point to keep the Titans alive, but Hardie, who has committed to play beach volleyball for Mercer, was fed with a perfect set at the net and sent another smash into the Hidden Valley defense that found the hardwooid and closed the deal.
“My strategy was basic for the fifth set,” Kristen Hardie noted. “I went with experience and put my five seniors on the court.”
“We had service errors and problems with our sets in the third and fourth sets,” Kate Hardie pointed out after the win. “Hidden Valley has very good players and believe me, we were worried and nervous at that point. But, we stayed on course knowing we had won the first two sets and had won two matches against E.C. Glass that went five sets during the season. We came through.”
While the Red Devils celebrated with their fans, the Hidden Valley team was left in tears in what had been a valiant comeback that just fell just short.
“We worked as a team to win the third and fourth sets,” Hidden Valley senior hitter Anna Holladay said after the match. “Our energy turned things around and gave us a chance.”
Kate Hardie led the Rustburg attack with 35 kills, 10 digs and two blocks.
Davenport slammed down 23 kills for the Titan and brought up 10 digs. Ponn fired 12 kills and added a dozen digs, many in acrobatic fashion. Seniors Emily Dudley and Faith Mitchell set the table all night for the Titan offense.
When asked about the state final on Saturday against the York-Tabb semifinal winner, Kristen Hardie had the matter-of-fact response.
“I don’t know much about either team, but tonight’s match was absolutely the state championship. Yes, it was definitely the state championship match everyone saw here tonight.”