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Flashes rusty in COVID return; LaBrae rolls

CHAMPION — Back on Sept. 23, the Champion Golden Flashes volleyball team beat the Chalker Wildcats in four sets.

It ended a four-game stretch where they had gone 2-2 and were looking to get some momentum for the home stretch of the season leading into the tournament.

Instead, there was a COVID-19 outbreak on Sept. 22 at Champion Local Schools. That led to the cancellation of athletic events that halted sports in the school system.

Flash forward to Wednesday night. Champion was able to get back on the court, but the rust was evident as the LaBrae Vikings swept the Golden Flashes in three sets — 25-4, 25-5, and 25-9 in a Mahoning Valley Athletic Conference, Gray Tier matchup.

“It was definitely hard to have to take some time off,” Champion coach Megan Wagner said. “You’re really starting to get into the groove of things and building some momentum. Then we had to shut down. There was only so much we could do outside of the gym. They aren’t around each other.

“We did do some workouts on the off days, but really not being in the gym affected us like it should any team. It’s just a matter of getting back into the groove. We worked hard on Monday and Tuesday to shake off some of the rust. We hope we got some of that rust off tonight.”

The Vikings (11-7, 8-3 MVAC Gray) controlled the serve nearly all night with 13 aces, just three errors, and won service point 62 times with a 95.8 percent in bounds rate.

Grace Barnhart led that surge for LaBrae with seven aces and 24 points.

“I’ve coached her since seventh grade,” LaBrae coach Courtney Kish said. “She’s always had a nice serve. She’s able to put the ball where I need her to, spot serve, and things like that. I think her volleyball IQ and ability to place the ball is definitely an advantage for us. I think as a team, we’ve worked a lot on our serve. A lot of our girls on a good day are able to place the ball where we want it to go.”

Jenna Reppart and Rylee McDonough led the Vikings with 10 kills apiece. Ashlee Monroe added 16 assists and four digs as LaBrae has made a concerted effort to improve defensively with their passing this season.

“I feel like if you can pass along with serve-receive, it sets you up well,” Kish said. “I have two setters this year in Rylee and Ashley. They both have nice hands. Additionally, I have Jenna in the front. We always talk about getting that good pass, we have the set and the offense to put it down.”

The Vikings did that, allowing Champion to win the serve just four times.

The Vikings lost six seniors from a team that a year ago had bigger aspirations but saw those end in a 3-0 sweep to Kirtland. They have just three returning varsity players and start a freshman from that team.

“We were young starting out this year,” Kish said. “It was a year of inexperience and working together to mesh. The biggest thing for us in talking over the last couple of days was us being at our prime with the tournament coming up. That was our goal this week. We wanted to peek into it.”

It’s been a much rougher uphill climb for Champion (2-11, 1-6) as they lost four seniors from a year ago and return two seniors this year. That, along with a shutdown of athletics for three weeks has added to the challenges that the team seemed to be coming out of three weeks ago.

The only senior in the lineup tonight, Kaylee Gania, led the Golden Flashes with 22 digs. Avery Clary added two kills.

“It’s just a matter of improving from today,” Wagner said. “We have a game tomorrow, so we’re going to take what we did tonight and just improve. We can only go up from here.”

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