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JFK rallies after wild loss in first set

Staff photo / Brad Emerine Kennedy’s Chloe Coates watches after a diving dig during the third set of the Eagles’ 35-37, 25-18, 25-22, 25-22 win over visiting Harding on Wednesday.

WARREN — It wasn’t the prettiest volleyball match of the season, but the determination, effort and perseverance on display in John F. Kennedy’s gymnasium Wednesday when the Eagles battled Warren G. Harding proved it was a big match for both schools.

Each team finished the 2019 campaign with two victories. The Raiders had already matched that win total entering the battle of Warren, while the Eagles were attempting to break through for their initial victory this season.

Kennedy overcame a lengthy and momentous first-set loss and rallied to a four-set victory (35-37, 25-18, 25-22, 25-22).

No. That is not a typo. Harding won the first set, 37-35.

“We’ve been working so hard as a team to finally pull out a win this year,” JFK junior captain Chloe Coates said. “We had to fight for it, and we did it as a team, so this is just a great feeling right now. It was so disheartening to lose that first game, but we showed something by getting back up and getting after it again. I think that says a lot about who we are.”

The first set was wild. There were 17 ties and 15 lead changes.

After the score was tied at 9, Harding rang up five straight points on the strength of two aces from Ryan Gump for its largest lead of the set. The Eagles caught up at 17, took a lead on an ace from Jenna Sajnovsky and led 23-18 and 24-21 before Harding knotted the score at 24 on kills by Brionna Bender and Makaila Powell and another Gump ace. Powell’s kill gave the Raiders a 25-24 lead before the teams started matching point-for-point.

Kennedy coach Sam Young was very concerned after the hosts eventually lost the first set.

“We had multiple times in the first set where we could’ve won and, I’m not going to lie, that concerned me going into the second set,” Young said. “They were so close in that first one, and we made mistakes when we were serving for the win. I told them they had to keep their heads up, get back out there, stay focused and win it in four now. And what do you know …

“We’ve been in many close games and some close matches, but we hadn’t found a way to get over that hurdle until tonight. Even in the sets we won, we had to dig deep and (Harding) pushed us from the get-go. Seeing the girls overcome that, that’s going to be huge for us. Hopefully we just build onto that momentum moving forward.”

The Eagles (1-5) bounced right back, bolting out to a 7-1 lead in the second set. Although the Raiders got as close as 14-12, a kill from Mikayla Liogas and an ace from Coates helped Kennedy reach a 20-14 lead and the Eagles tied the match.

“We got excited after that first game,” said Harding coach Nadine Gardner, whose team dropped to 2-6. “We switched things up a bit in the second game and maybe we should’ve just stuck with the same.

“We really wanted to get this win and I think we had some hitting mistakes, hitting long, because we were trying so hard and our emotions were high. We got demolished by Howland (25-4, 25-2, 25-5 on Sept. 15) and we wanted to come out here and get a win to help us heal some mentally.

The Eagles followed up their quick set-2 start with an 8-2 lead in the third set, with an aces from Liogas and Sajnovsky and a kill from Coates leading the way.

Harding got as close as 12-10 on an ace from Powell, then fell back 17-12 before Bender logged a kill and a pair of aces to get within 17-15, but the Eagles increased their lead to 23-18 on Ellie Rinck’s block.

Again, Harding edged closer, trailing just 23-22 after a Powell block. But Kennedy registered the final two points.

In the fourth set, the teams were deadlocked seven times. Harding had back-to-back hitting errors but trailed just 21-20 before making a service error. Coates followed with a kill and the Eagles hung on.

“We kept playing and diving and just trying to keep every ball alive,” Coates said. “No matter what the issue was, a bad pass, a bad hit or getting one blocked back at us, we moved on to the next point.”

That’s something Young appreciates.

“This group is in the moment,” he said. “They don’t celebrate each point real hard. They basically just say, ‘That was awesome, now refocus on the next point.’ We were so focused on getting a win. I think at times, the girls don’t allow themselves to enjoy a great shot, spike, block or dig. So on match point, when it was finally over, they celebrated and exploded.”

Liogas finished with six aces to lead JFK, while Jasmyne Whitman logged 11 digs and Nadiyah Blackwell had a pair of blocks.

Gum had five aces for the Raiders. Powell had 12 kills and five blocks and Bender had nine blocks. Jade Allen had seven digs and Camryn Stewart had 11 assists.

“I think the girls are meshing as a team better than we were early this season,” Gardner said. “The girls are supporting each other and they’re working together very well. I know we wanted this one bad today, so now we’ve got to get back to work.”

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