BLOUNTVILLE — At the midway point of the Big 8 Conference volleyball season, two of the top teams in the league are still works in progress.
Dobyns-Bennett pulled out a 25-21, 25-19, 22-25, 25-15 decision over Sullivan Central on Tuesday night in a match that saw both teams show flashes of brilliance at times. But the Tribe’s scrambling defense coupled with a rapidly improving front line proved to be the difference in the match.
Lexi Hartsock had a spectacular night for the Lady Indians, coming up with 25 digs to anchor a helter-skelter defense that scrambled for every ball. Emerging team leader Cydnee Morrisette slammed home 16 kills and Ashton Benton continued her evolution into a force along the front line by hammering 15 kills to go with three blocks.
Morrisette is one of the few holdovers from last year’s state runner-up team, but the rest of the lineup is quickly getting up to speed. The Lady Indians lost only one match in the first half of the conference slate, and D-B coach Wendy Baker said stellar defense has been a big part of her team’s success.
“At the beginning of the season, I said our defense is key, and it has been,” Baker said. “They play with so much heart. They play every point like it’s their last point. There are still little mental glitches there, but I feel like the more we play, we’re figuring it out.”
Each of the first two games remained undecided in the late stages, but the Lady Indians took control of both during crunch time. Game 1 was tied at 20 before the Tribe scored five of the last six points and Game 2 was tied at 18 until D-B won seven of the final eight points.
The Tribe (21-8, 6-1) was back in position to pull off the sweep in Game 3, but the Lady Cougars (12-5, 5-2) extended the match with a late surge of their own.
While Baker acknowledged her team’s hustle on defense, she also noticed some shaky play during the crucial closing moments of Game 3.
“We’ve got to learn to play our positions. We’re playing on top of each other,” she said. “When it comes to crunch time — a little bit of panic. We need to be settled in by now.”
Central coach Tracy Graybeal also saw some positives from her squad during Tuesday’s midterm exam. Amber Alvis slammed home 11 kills and came up with 12 digs while Savannah Benton had 10 kills to her credit. Madi Phillippie ran the offense with her usual efficiency, handing out 26 assists to go with 17 digs, and Amber Harr led the team with 20 digs.
But Graybeal also saw plenty of room for improvement as her team entered the second half of the Big 8 schedule.
“I told them before the game that it doesn’t matter who’s across the net from us, we have to worry about our game,” Graybeal said. “We have to take care of us. You make your adjustments according to what your opponent throws at you and we didn’t adjust very well tonight.”
While both D-B and Central seem destined to finish among the top teams in the league, their coaches know that the end of the regular season isn’t the finish line. With the postseason looming, the goal is to be sure their teams are peaking at the right time.
“We’re still improving every day, and that is our focus,” Baker said. “But it’s coming up quick — we’re getting there.”