An up-and-down start to the 2018 postseason has George Mason High School’s volleyball team in a familiar spot after a win over Rappahannock County and loss to Madison County High School set up a fourth straight Region B home opener tomorrow night.
What was cool dominance just a week ago has transformed into a frantic fight to survive for the Mustangs (14-6) with the arrival of the playoffs. Case in point is Mason’s 3-1 Bull Run District semifinal win against Rappahannock County. The Mustangs dropped one game to the Panthers in the regular season before a pulling off a soul-sucking nine-point comeback to win the first of six straight sets and both of the team’s two matches earlier in October.
During Monday’s semifinal, however, Mason encountered a Rappahannock County team that played desperate to spoil any promise the Mustangs had at the end of the regular season.
“You have to stay focused no matter what,” Mason head coach Derek Baxter said right before the postseason started. “Even if you just beat a team 25-10, you can’t let off the gas. That’s what usually happens is if you beat a team handily, then fundamentals and communication go out the window.”
After mauling the Panthers to end the regular season, Mason came out lax with their season on the line. Following senior designated setter Evelyn Duross’ kill to knot the game up at nine apiece, Rappahannock County tore off nine of the next 10 points to seize a 18-10 lead. The Mustangs coordination was fuzzy throughout the 25-18 first set loss and seemed possible to bleed into the next set.
And at first it did. Despite being able to maintain a slim lead during the first few points, Mason’s ball movement resembled a melee more than it did the masterful display that characterized their seven game win streak. Down 10-9, senior outside hitter and Bull Run District player of the year McKenzie Brady single-handedly willed the team back in competition with five straight kills, including a flukey flick of the wrist that landed softly on the Panthers’ sideline. The Mustangs found their sea legs after that and claimed the second set 25-20.
A nip-and-tuck third set decided the match. With eight lead changes and no team gaining more than a four-point advantage, tensions were high in Mary Ellen Henderson Middle School’s gym. Sophomore libero Caroline Poley’s ace to take a 20-19 lead put Mason ahead for good, and a kill from senior outside hitter Riley Ruyak and two blocks and a kill from sophomore outside hitter Roza Gal helped inch the Mustangs across the finish line for a 25-22 win.
Mason controlled the fourth set, even after giving Rappahannock County a fighter’s chance late. Kills from Ruyak and Gal, coupled with an ace from Brady, helped seal the match for the Mustangs.
An anticipated rematch with Madison County ended poorly for the Mustangs, as they fell to the Mountaineers in three straight sets to take second in the Bull Run tournament.
Now a regional home opener against Robert E. Lee High School awaits Mason tomorrow night with another chance to conquer that demon.