*Cover photo credit: Rik Welsh/Southeastern Athletic Pics
Brock Netter, Staff Writer
ALBANY — Not that Southeastern needed any extra motivation heading into tournament play, but being given a No. 7 seed simply just added gasoline to the fire.
Embracing the “underdog” role, the Panthers (12-12) pulled off their first upset of the postseason, defeating No. 2 seed Alexander (17-6) in four sets Saturday by a 25-22, 20-25, 25-17, 25-15 final.
“Being a lower seed isn’t something our program has been used to over the past few years, so we fully embrace it,” senior hitter Skylar Hice said. “It’s kind of special in a way because it gives us a chance to prove ourselves, which we really haven’t had much of a chance to do this season.”
Wasting no time making a statement, Hice went straight to work at the net piling kill after kill and leaving Alexander frantically searching for a way to stop her. The Panthers never trailed in the set, holding a lead as big as 16-7.
Although the Spartans made a late run, the hole they had dug was too deep to dig out of.
Shell-shocked, the Spartans knew they had to figure out ways to contain Hice’s impact for the second set. It took some time and they trailed for the majority of the set. With SE leading 20-19 following a Hice kill, Alexander finally figured it out and pieced together a 6-0 run to end the set and tie the match 1-1.
Then the Panthers made a couple of adjustments of their own and decided to spread the wealth in the third.
After a kill from Lyndsey Skeens gave the Panthers a 7-4 lead, the duo of Alexis Bailes and Hannah Lougheed took over. The Spartans couldn’t adjust to Bailes ability to hit left-handed or Lougheed’s powerful swing.
The sophomore duo had four kills each and pushed the lead to 17-9 before closing the set in convincing fashion.
“Typically with left-handed hitters, you want them on the right side of the net. But we moved Alexis to the left side, and it’s worked out great,” Southeastern coach Jimmy Hutton said. “She’s been a big plus, and while there’s still things we’re working on with her, she’s bloomed into a very nice volleyball player.
“Hannah has a ton of power and when she gets ahold of one, it’s going straight down. She struggles mentally a little with letting bad plays go, but that’s also part of being a young player and growing. She did a very nice job today.”
Feeling that her team had the Spartans on the ropes, Hice reemerged and went back to doing what she does best.
In between kills from Skeens, Bailes and Audrey Scott, she powered down five of her own as the Panthers jumped out to a 12-4 lead in the fourth.
She racked up two more kills, totaling 29 on the evening, and the Panthers finished off the Spartans in dominant fashion down the stretch.
“After the third game, I asked the girls what we did better compared to the second set. They all answered we controlled the ball,” Hutton said. “We got the ball to our attackers. Volleyball is an attacker’s game and that was the difference.”
“Our setter [Ameris Cooper] was outstanding,” Hice said. “It’s something we had our struggles with this season, but to come together in this game and get that part figured out was great. Everything just clicked really well.”
Southeastern advances to a Division III district semifinal at 7 p.m., Thursday at Waverly against North Adams. That game will follow a matchup between Wheelersburg and Northwest.
The Panthers already own a five-set victory over the Green Devils in North Adams earlier this season. They know the Green Devils are wanting revenge.
“We’re not going to go in overconfident, It’s tough to beat a team twice,” Hutton said. “Tournament time is a whole different animal, but I think the fact that we play in a very tough league night in and night out helps us prepare for these games. If we pull it all together and play how we can, we have a chance to pull off another upset.”