Wheeling Jesuit Takes Down West Liberty in Volleyball
By TRACY WATSON
For The Intelligencer
WHEELING — To be the best, you have to beat the best, and when it comes to volleyball in the Mountain East Conference, the best is Coach Christy Benner and her nationally ranked Wheeling Jesuit University team.
In the five years of the MEC, Benner’s Cardinals had never lost a conference match and have dominated play.
Tuesday night, conference and Ohio County rival West Liberty made the trip to the Alma Grace McDonough Center looking to make their mark and show they were ready to be the new queens of the block.
And while early on it looked like maybe, just maybe, that was going to be the case, Wheeling Jesuit overcame adversity, gaining control late in the second game of the night before flexing its muscles again.
The Cardinals finally took their first lead of the night late in the second game, taking over control at the net, and eventually cruising to a 20-25, 27-25, 25-12, 25-19 four-game victory over the Hilltoppers in a meeting of conference unbeatens.
Wheeling Jesuit improves to 19-3 overall, 6-0 in the conference and takes over control of first place in the MEC. Meanwhile, Coach Kayla Mull’s West Liberty squad can only think of what could have been and wait for the rematch while falling to 17-5, 6-1.
“I am very happy with this win,” Benner said. “But we know we will see them again at their place and they will be ready to play again. It is always fun to play against your rival and it is a little more special playing against Kayla (Mull), who was my first graduate assistant here at Wheeling Jesuit.”
It was actually the Toppers taking control early on, dominating at the net and gaining the early momentum in winning the first game. With freshman Abbi Gillson leading the way, the visitors jumped out to a quick 11-1 lead in Game 1.
And while the Redbirds slowly chipped away at that lead, pulling to within three points at 22-19 on a Cassie Meyer kill, West Liberty never surrendered the advantage in recording a 25-10 win.
Game 2 started out more of the same as the upset-minded Hilltoppers shook off an early 2-2 deadlock with sophomore Madison Clayton helping the visitors get a little cushion with five consecutive kills, blocks or taps. The lead grew to 11-4, and remained a six-point lead at 18-12, before the Cardinals and their crowd took over.
Again chipping away, this time Wheeling Jesuit caught up at 20-20 on another Meyer kill and then took their first lead of the night on a Hilltoppers mistake. The lead was either deadlocked or changed hands six times the rest of the way before the hosts closed things out 27-25 on another West Liberty mistake, evening the games at 1-1.
“The crowd was a huge help, and the girls relaxed and really stepped up there late in the second game,” Benner said.
That momentum rolled straight into the third game as Wheeling Jesuit took control early, scoring the initial four points before busting out to an 11-1 advantage. Junior Haley Kramer was the main catalyst, helping the Cardinals to take over at the net.
West Liberty never got closer than nine as the hosts rolled to a 25-12 win and a 2-1 upperhand. Key to the turnaround was the fact the Hilltoppers had 13 blocks through two games but did not record one in Game 3.
The visitors fought mightily in the final game with seven ties and three lead changes, while leading by three points early and two points late, before the Cardinals scored the final four points of the night to cap off the victory.
Leading 22-19, Wheeling Jesuit scored three points with Meyer serving, including a pair of Allonda Watkins kills to ice things.
“West Liberty is a great blocking team, they always are, and they were doing it very well against us early on,” Benner said. “They didn’t allow us to play our style early on, but we did a good job battling back and gaining momentum.
“Side-out is also a very important part of our game and while they were aggressive, our ball control was great and really got better after that second game.”
As far as the momentum, Mull admitted that things swung very quickly and her team could simply not regain control.
“It all happened real quick,” Mull said. “I think we came out very strong and aggressive, but we gave up the lead and lost that second set by two points and I think that deflated us a little bit.
“They changed match-ups on us and we just struggled to adjust to that. There were a bunch of little things that we had problems with. We had some runs early on but we were never really able to get going after that second game.
“That fourth and final game was a grudge match that kept going back-and-forth but in the end we continued to struggle and it did us in.”