MCARTHUR — Vinton County coach Ashley Ervin asked her team following Wednesday’s victory over Warren who it hoped to play in the sectional final on Saturday.
Her team responded with one simple word: Unioto.
It was the Shermans who ousted the Vikings last year in straight sets to claim the sectional title, and the Vikings wanted that revenge game.
The Vikings got their wish and called their shot Babe Ruth style as they took down the Shermans’ in an epic five-set thriller 25-27, 25-14, 21-25, 25-23 and 15-13 to claim the school’s first sectional title since 1999.
“This game, this moment means everything,” senior hitter Maylea Huff said. “All the hours of hard work and long practices throughout the summer, it feels amazing to see all of it pay off right now. I’m really proud of all the girls and I’m happy they get to experience this feeling.”
Throughout the first set, the Vikings leaned on Zoey Kiefer to guide them and she responded with five kills as they held leads of 10-8, 17-14 all the way up to 24-19.
Unioto battled back cut the lead down to 24-22 and then Huff came down on her ankle which had the Vikings frazzled without its senior leader at the net.
Though they battled, Unioto showed its grit and finished the set on an 8-2 run behind Cree Stulley to take first set.
After trailing 5-0 to set the second set, Huff reentered the game and notched a block, which put the spark right back into the Vikings.
“Just her coming back that quick gave us a ton of energy and I give her so much credit for that,” sophomore setter Cameron Zinn said. “She’s the leader on this team and she wanted it just as much as the rest of us.”
It was more than a spark that Huff provided, she also gave back the team’s confidence. After a kill from Kiefer, Sydney Smith came through with three kills in a row to give the Vikings a 7-6 lead.
What was later an 8-8 tie quickly turned into a 6-0 run for the Vikings with Zinn at the serving line for a 14-8 lead.
“Unioto spilt the backcourt with two people so I kept serving at the seams,” Zinn said. “We watched film on Friday and noticed that they weren’t on line so our hitters kept hitting where they weren’t and we kept control of the ball.”
With kills and aces being piled up between Zinn and Smith, the Vikings held double digit leads twice before closing out with a dominant win.
The net play of Smith, Kiefer and Lacy Ward kept the Vikings afloat in the third set, while Unioto’s duo of Stulley and Sydney McGlone kept their pace.
The biggest lead was five points, held by Unioto at 9-4. From that point, it was about who made more mistakes since both were racking up kills left and right.
Despite trailing 24-20, the Vikings still had a chance after a kill from Ward, but a simple miscommunication on serve receive gave the Shermans a 2-1 lead.
“Unioto is a great team and I give them all the credit,” Ervin said. “(Unioto coach) Natalie (Stulley) does a great job getting those players ready and they did it without their libero. They dive after balls and make plays out of nowhere. That’s what they do and why they’ve been successful over the years.”
It was gut check time for the Vikings while the Shermans aimed to close the deal and move on to district play.
There were a total of 15 ties ranging from 7-7 to the final one at 21-21, and neither team was budging a millimeter.
Then Huff came through with three straight kills before the Shermans countered back with a kill from Brynlee Viney and a block from Stulley. But off the pass from serve receive, Zinn pulled a fast one and notched the kill for the Viking win.
With the sectional title nearly at their fingertips, the Vikings went on the attack and jumped all over Unioto. Behind three kills from Smith, the Vikings held a 9-4 lead before a Kerrigan Ward ace force Unioto to call timeout down six points.
“Our hitters have really stepped up this year. Last year it was mainly just tip after tip, but this year we’ve been coming out swinging,” Zinn said. “Sydney, Maylea, Zoey and Lacy we’re all incredible and played their best games in this one.”
However, Amber Cottrill powered a pair of kills that sparked a 4-1 run down to 11-8. Later, Jerzie Paul came up with a block that cut the Viking lead down to 13-12.
However, the Vikings simply wanted it more and leading 14-13, they returned the ball to Unioto, whose kill attempt fell into the net and to the ground, ending the 20-year title drought.
“We’ve been a program that’s not very good and has been overlooked for years,” Zinn said. “But coming out as the No. 1 seed, beating Unioto and seeing all of the fan support we had means everything.”
Zinn passed out 49 assists for the Vikings, alongside 19 digs, four kills and three aces.
Smith piled on a team-high 17 kills, 10 digs and four aces, Lacy Ward added 14 kills, 14 digs and a pair of aces.
Kiefer had 11 kills while Huff had 11 digs and 10 kills. Kerrigan Ward came up with 60 digs and four aces, Mika McFadden and Josie Hembree had 14 digs each while Taylor Houdasheldt added eight digs.
Vinton County advances to Division II district tournament action on Wednesday at Southeastern High School. The Vikings play at 7:00 against Fairfield Union, who beat Circleville in four sets.
“It’s a little nerve-wracking to think we’re going to districts, but I’m excited,” Huff said with a smile.