LAFAYETTE, Ga - The Eastside Lady Eagles gave it their all on the road against an outstanding LaFayette Lady Ramblers squad but fell short in the end.
The Lady Eagles fell in straight sets against the Lady Ramblers, but in a best-of-five match, losing three straight sets would make many outsiders believe this was not at all a close match. However, that was most definitely not the case.
It was a constant battle for both sides, and the Lady Eagles seemed to be in each set. What was most impressive but at the same time may have been the Lady Eagles' downfall was how they seemed to grow stronger with each match.
The Lady Eagles started off strong basically trading point-for-point with the Lady Ramblers through the first 18 awarded points of the opening set. However, the Lady Ramblers would go on a long run and ultimately cruise to a comfortable 25-11 set victory.
Strong starts and slow finishes led to the Lady Eagles playing catchup for the majority of the night, but in the later stages, they seemed to do a better job of not letting the opposition get comfortable and go on large point runs.
In the second set, the Lady Eagles still could not find a way to grab the lead back from the Lady Ramblers but fought hard, which made for a much closer match. This time around the Lady Ramblers had to fight for every point and were not able to put together a long string of consecutive points.
The Lady Ramblers would eventually take the set, but the Lady Eagles trimmed the deficit to just five points as they fell by a final score of 25-20.
It was the final set where the Lady Eagles seemed to have found their groove and get back to their own dominant ways. The Lady Eagles seemed to have the Lady Ramblers on the ropes in the third set and found a way to hang on to the lead for the majority of the set.
They seemed to have everything working and looked to be well on their way to forcing a fourth set. However, the Lady Ramblers did an excellent job of not letting the Lady Eagles jump too far ahead and kept them in striking distance throughout the set.
The match ended up being pushed to extra points before the Lady Ramblers walked away with not only a 26-24 set victory but a 3-0 set victory. This was just the type of match where the Lady Eagles may have found their footing just a little too late.
Just before the Lady Ramblers took the final points and the match, the Lady Eagles lost a key player to a tough injury.
With the set all-tied up, the Lady Eagles outstanding junior Addie Walters sustained an unfortunate injury that left an otherwise rambunctious arena completely silent.
According to the Lady Eagles head coach Maggie Johnston, Walters seemed to have had her foot stepped on during the course of play, which led to her possibly rolling her ankle on that point. It was a scary injury, but a quick and speedy recovery can be hoped for one of the Lady Eagles' most consistent players.
Johnston believes that maybe her team may have underestimated the competition just a little bit, and that's what led to their slow start on the night.
"They finally settled in, and we talked about how they were going to hit hard. This team was very good, and they have a lot of great hitters, and I think that first set they were a little shell-shocked with how good their hitters really were," said Johnston. "They figured out going forward how to sight out and how to find a way to score points."
Despite the early struggles, Johnston still believes that her team achieved some of the main goals that she hoped this group would accomplish since the onset of the season.
"All we wanted them to do all season long was get to a point where they were communicating well, they were hustling and going after every ball, and they were working as a team," said Johnston. "They finally showed that tonight, so I'm very proud of their efforts and how they've achieved all three of those goals."
This was not a senior-laden group for the Lady Eagles, but Ashara Whaley, Chloe Johnson, Emma Kate Leach, and Remington Warthen were all crucial for the team's success and will be missed.
"All the seniors played tonight, and all of them had an important role in the season," said Johnston. "It will definitely be sad to see them go talent-wise and just as being a good teammate and helping us in other areas."
With only four seniors leaving the Lady Eagles squad, they will return multiple key players and should be a formidable group next season. The prospects of this team have Johnston excited, and she will be looking for this returning corps to keep their success going.
"It really excites me that they've been playing together, even when they were not on varsity, they were down there playing JV together," said Johnston. "I'm really excited about their unity on and off the court and hope that they improve their skills and continue that unity into next season."
This Lady Eagles squad will definitely be powerful next year with players like Walters, Payton Robinson, and Hailee Bell returning. One such player that will also be returning is Taylor Adams, and she has been a bright spot for the Lady Eagles all season.
There's no doubting Adams's remarkable play as it helps her lead by example. However, Johnston wants to see Adams take the next step as a leader and believes she has already started to do that.
"She's definitely talent-wise, there, but we've worked on with her being more of a vocal leader. She wants to be a leader that just does it by actions, but we're trying to develop her into more of a vocal leader," said Johnston. "She definitely showed signs of promise with that towards the end here."
If Adams and the rest of the returning Lady Eagles continue to improve not only as athletes, but as leaders, then this squad will find themselves easily back in the playoff hunt next season.