LEAVITTSBURG - The key play in one of the biggest comebacks in Mathews High School history probably won't be used in any volleyball instructional videos.
"None of that was volleyball the way you're supposed to play," Mathews senior Maddie Williams said with a laugh. "It was all one arm and just improvisation. But it was awesome."
One attribute that could be taken from the play was vital in the Mustangs' resurgence: effort.
With Mathews down two games to none entering the third set in a match against LaBrae that was all but over, the Mustangs' Katarina Schubert dove and fully extended one arm out to save a ball that seemed destined to fall for a point. A few fingers kept the ball from hitting the floor, but since it only stayed about a foot off the ground, Karli Romesberg also had to lay out to keep the point alive. Her hit went to another Mathews player, who sent it over the net for a jaw-dropping save.
The Mustangs went on to win the point, and the excitement ignited a furious Mathews' rally that led them to an unprecedented three straight victories and a 3-2 win over the Vikings.
Mathews coach Carole O'Dell said she has never been part of a two-games-to-none comeback, but she never lost faith in her Mustangs (5-1), even after they went down 2-0.
"I told our girls in the huddle that I had all the confidence in the world in them, that I believed in them, but at that point, they didn't believe in themselves," said O'Dell, who added Mathews' first loss to Pymatuning Valley on Tuesday added to their lack of confidence. "They needed to step it up, and it was just a matter of getting them motivated."
That took some work after LaBrae (2-2) thoroughly outplayed them in the first two games, winning 25-20 and 25-17. Mathews didn't appear overmatched in the two sets, but the Mustangs looked unenthusiastic and lacked any type of rhythm.
"We were definitely down," Williams said. "I did (think we could come back), but I was defeated, myself."
That changed early in Game 3. The big play came with Mathews up just 1-0, and as crucial as the dives and all-out effort were to the Mustangs' confidence - "That was definitely a game-changer," Williams said - the loss of the point was equally demoralizing to the Vikings. LaBrae played with a certain poise early on but appeared to be overconfident heading into the third game. It's a lesson learned, according to Vikings coach Hillary Allen, who also said she couldn't remember losing a game in which her team led 2-0.
"The swing of momentum was definitely the tell of the tale," said Allen, a former Mathews coach who led the Mustangs to a 39-9 record in 2009 and 2010. "Volleyball is all about momentum. We went into the third game up, and it just bottomed out. We just couldn't seem to put the pieces together to build it back up."
The Mustangs won Game 3, 25-19, and the swagger that was lost was regained, leading to another revival in Game 4. They trailed 10-6, but came back to win 25-17. That set the stage for the decisive Game 5, and the pressure of the situation showed in LaBrae's play. The Vikings struggled to sustain any rallies, while Mathews played care-free and exuberant. The Mustangs never trailed and won 15-8 to complete an improbable comeback.
"After that third game," said O'Dell of when she realized her team could win the match. "They were excited, and the energy on the court was huge. We had the momentum, and they just needed to roll with it."