BUNKER HILL — Eastern’s volleyball team opened the season 1-7.
Look at the Comets now: Class 3A Maconaquah Sectional champions.
Eastern overcame 1-0 and 2-1 set deficits to beat Western in a five-set thriller in the championship Saturday night. The final scoreline was 16-25, 25-20, 25-27, 25-20, 15-11.
“We’ve been working all season for this,” Eastern coach Missy Mavrick said. “We started off rough, but they came together here at the end of the year. It started off with [winning] the conference and then pushed through the sectional.”
The Comets (22-13) avenged losses to Mississinewa and Western from their 1-7 start in winning their second sectional title all-time. The other came in Class 2A in 2007.
“It’s been a long time,” said Loralei Evans, the team’s lone senior. “I was really glad for my senior year to have this.”
Eastern advances to the Norwell Regional next Saturday. The Comets will face Fort Wayne Bishop Dwenger (29-2) in the second semifinal.
The Comets took control down the stretch in the sectional final. Other than a 1-1 tie in the fourth set, Mavrick’s squad held the lead throughout the final two sets.
“We kept up the energy a lot,” Evans said. “We played Western in the regular season and we did not play well against them so we were really glad to come back and beat them. We really wanted it bad.”
Western’s 3-0 victory over Eastern on Aug. 26 dropped the Comets to 1-7.
The rematch went back and forth. After Western (17-15) won the first set and Eastern won the second set, the match tightened in the third set when the squads battled through 14 ties and nine lead changes before the Panthers emerged with a 27-25 win for a 2-1 set advantage.
From there, the Comets found something thanks in part to cleaner offense. Evans had three kills to start the fourth set — and she delivered numerous more the rest of the way with setter Emma Sandlin providing the assists.
After winning the fourth set, the Comets maintained the momentum in the final set as they built leads of 3-0, 7-2 and 10-5. The Panthers closed to within 12-11, but Evans had a kill to make it 13-11 and the Comets quickly slammed the door shut for the win.
Evans finished with 36 kills.
“Loraeli just does a great job,” Mavrick said. “She has been huge for us up in the front row, she is our go-to. We struggled at the beginning of the year when she was in the back row. I felt like toward the end of the year, we really cleaned that up.”
Also for Eastern, Kate Harrison had 11 kills and Trista Rice had six. Sandlin dished 58 assists. Rice served 19 points. Defensively, Harrison had 25 digs, Makenna Titus had 18, Rice had 17, Jenna Odle had 16 and Evans had 13. Evans also had 25 serve receptions. Rice had 15 and Odle had 14.
For Western, Hilary Merica floored 20 kills, Taylor Scott had a dozen kills and Linsay Guge and Scott had 11 digs apiece.
“I think Eastern finished the match pretty strong,” Western coach Jessica Oliver said. “Not to make excuses, but the emotion we came off of after beating Northwestern [in the afternoon semifinal] was huge and I think it was a little rough to get it going again.”
The loss marked the end for Oliver’s large senior class of Merica, Sophia Baker, Sadie Harding, Abby Guge, Hayli Irvin, Taylor Scott and Haley Scott.
“This group is amazing. I have enjoyed them so much the last two years. They have great volleyball IQ, they are in it every practice ... I’ve been very blessed to have them,” she said.
In Saturday’s opening semifinal, Eastern made quick work of Oak Hill in a 3-0 victory (25-13, 26-24, 25-18).
Sandlin recorded 32 assists, 13 service points and 20 digs to lead the Comets’ charge. Evans had 14 kills and 10 digs. Harrison had 10 kills and a dozen digs. Rice chipped in five kills and 10 digs. Makenna Titus had 11 service receptions.
In the second semifinal, Western upset three-time defending sectional champion Northwestern in a five-set battle, avenging a pair of regular-season losses. The scoreline was 15-25, 25-22, 25-16, 13-25, 15-12.
“This was a total team effort,” Oliver said.
Harding had a nice double-double of 22 assists and 22 service points. In the process, she reached 1,000 career assists. Merica had 21 kills.
For the Tigers (16-11), McKenna Layden had 23 kills, 22 digs and six blocks. Morgan Walker had 26 digs. Leah Carter had 10 kills, Kenzie Rogers had 18 assists and 23 digs and Jaci Elson had 16 assists and 15 digs.