Avon volleyball’s Oct. 8 game against the Olmsted Falls Bulldogs began and ended with Emily Gardner. One of four juniors on a team that has a senior class just as strong as the one it graduated last season, Gardner recorded kills for the first and final points of the Eagles’ Southwestern Conference-clinching four-set victory.
In all, Gardner contributed a team-best 17 kills and was a constant source of high-intensity offense in a match that had all the feel of a playoff game.
“It’s awesome,” Gardner said of winning the conference. “It’s a great feeling to be able to do that for the school and everybody. We’re still looking forward to that (last regular season) game and we’re going to try to kill them and go undefeated in the conference. We’re really working toward that.”
The victory secured the fourth consecutive SWC title for the Eagles and will give them a wave of momentum to ride before their first playoff match Saturday against the winner of the Amherst/North Ridgeville game tonight.
“The first thing I said (to the team) when I walked in the locker room was, ‘Oh my God, I’m so proud of you,’” Bendzuck said. “I think most of our conference counted us out this year because of what we graduated last year. This team has heart. They showed that. They fought the entire time even in that second set. Things were not going our way but they didn’t quit and they haven’t quit all year.”
Little separated the teams in the first two sets as Avon took the first 25-23 and Olmsted Falls took the second by the same count. The Eagle offense continued chipping away at a loctite Bulldog defense, though and won the third and fourth sets 25-16 and 25-15 respectively.
Avon coach Julie Bendzuck praised the Bulldogs’ defense and said the continued effort by Gardner and senior Ashlee Torbert to wear out Olmsted Falls throughout the game made the difference.
“I think if you look at Emily as an overall player, she’s an offensive and defensive complete strength on our team,” Bendzuck said. “Ashlee, she runs the offense but her defense was unbelievable. They’re just both competitors. They love the game, they love to play with their team and you can see that fire in their eyes when they’re on the court.”
The first set, won by the Eagles, could very easily have gone the other way. The same, realistically, could be said for the Bulldogs’ second set.
In the first, Olmsted Falls jumped out to a quick 6-1 lead and had firm control of the momentum until Avon battled back to tie the set at 12-12. Neither team found an edge as the next eight points were traded, leading to a 16-16 tie.
The Eagles finally strung together multiple points in a row, going up 18-16 to an Olmsted Falls timeout. Out of that, the Bulldogs ran off three points of their own to go up 19-18. That was the last lead Olmsted Falls had that set, however, as more point-trading led to the 25-23 final.
It wasn’t Gardner who recorded that winning point, though. Sophomore Emma Farney set up senior Lea Morris for the kill.
“(Avon doesn’t) have one go-to player, they have players who can score in all three positions which is a strength of their team,” Olmsted Falls coach Brigid Radigan said. “Our defense, we pride ourself on our defense and these girls work so hard, so it’s like a little bit of a morale killer. In rallies, you have these amazing digs and then sometimes you fail to terminate. But the effort that these girls put into their defense is impressive.”
Avon nearly battled back again in the second, but the Bulldogs’ lead was too much to overcome. The set started as the first ended: Neither team more than a few points out of striking distance. With Olmsted Falls leading 13-11, though, it created its separation.
Five-unanswered points put Olmsted Falls up 18-11 and though Avon ultimately cut the lead to one point at 24-23, Emma O’Brien (27 digs) and Halle Slater (eight kills, three blocks) teamed up to end the second set.
Other stat leaders for the Bulldogs included Lindsay LaPinta (31 digs), Kylee Urban (18 digs, seven kills), Riley Victor (nine kills) and Brittany Roman (four blocks).
In the third, it was the Bulldogs’ turn to attempt a comeback. Down just 5-4, Avon scored eight of nine points to increase its lead to 13-5. Olmsted Falls then scored five straight points to cut the lead to just three (13-10). Another push from the Eagles, though, resulted in five straight for them and an 18-10 lead. The Bulldogs got within no closer than six points the rest of the set.
By the fourth set, Avon’s pressure on Olmsted Falls’ defense had worn enough away that the Eagles controlled most of the fourth set. After a 7-7 tie early in the set, Avon reclaimed the lead and never looked back. Garder added five of her 17 kills in the final set.
Though the junior was dominant, Morris and junior Jamie Villwock added 13 kills apiece, Torbert recorded 36 assists and senior Alex Laboy had 32 digs.
“We came in (to this match) really needed to start mixing up our shots,” Gardner said. “Tipping deep, tipping short, swinging deep shots too and we really did that well and got their defense thrown off. They played phenomenal defense, I’ll give that to them, but we really worked them and kept pounding balls and we didn’t let up.”
For Olmsted Falls, Radigan said she and her team are disappointed they couldn’t win the conference, a goal they set for themselves at the start of the season, but also that she is proud of what her team has accomplished through adversity. She knows they can’t dwell on this disappointment for too long, though, as the Bulldogs play the winner of yesterday’s Avon Lake/Lorain game tomorrow.
“I would rather lose with the team that I had tonight than win with any other team,” Radigan said. “These girls have been through the grinder since June 1, we’ve played through so much adversity. It stings a little bit but you have to move on. That’s the mindset, it’s next game up. Winning (our final regular-season game) would give us some confidence going into sectionals.”
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