The Central Hardin volleyball team couldn’t stand prosperity Monday night in the opening round of the 2023 State Tournament.
The Bruins had control of all five sets in their first-round battle with homestanding Louisville Mercy, but could not drive home the final nail in the three games that counted the most and fell to the Jaguars, 25-21, 25-23, 20-25, 20-25 and 15-8.
“We had it right there in front of us, but just couldn’t close it out, especially in that second set,” said Central Hardin senior middle hitter Harper Lewis, who played one of the most inspiring matches of her high school career to help keep the Bruins in the match.
After watching a 15-9 lead evaporate in the Game 1 setback, Central Hardin appeared to have regained momentum when it built a 21-14 advantage in the second set.
But fate would not be kind to the Bruins down the stretch.
Mercy rallied behind what it did best all night, dominating the net, especially on the block, to finish with an 11-2 run to push the Bruins to the brink of elimination.
“We just couldn’t get that one little break to go our way all night,” Central Hardin coach Bill Rineker said. “That second set was the pivotal set and we couldn’t bring it home. After that there was no room for error. We knew it was going to be tough to get three in a row against a team as good as Mercy.”
The Bruins appeared to have the second set in hand, jumping to a 13-5 lead.
Lewis broke a 5-5 tie with a tip kill in the middle, then went behind the back line to serve during a 7-0 run, including two aces, that pushed the lead to eight.
Larkin Taylor had two kills in the surge, one off the block and a well-placed left-handed dump after winning a 50-50 ball at the net.
Mercy battled within 18-14, before a dump kill from Bruin junior setter Kati Vest and a tip kill from Lewis gave Central Hardin a seemingly comfortable 21-14 edge.
The Jaguars wouldn’t be denied, willing their way back behind a solid defensive effort.
Mercy was relentless in controlling the Bruin attack, constantly keeping the ball in play off the block, either regaining possession for an offensive attack or sending it back across to keep the Central Hardin defense scrambling.
The Jaguars rallied at the net with two kills from Maia Marin and a block kill from Alli Riegling to close within 21-19, before Central Hardin’s Sadie Atcher countered with a rocket inside the left sideline to increase the lead to three.
The Bruins held their last lead at 23-22 when Klaire Warrell won a free ball at the net and put down a kill between two defenders.
Mercy responded with the final three points, sandwiching two kills around a Central Hardin hitting error to close the set.
“I thought we were very aggressive, but their defense was insane,” Lewis said. “They kept a lot of balls alive with their block. We took a lot of hard swings, but they just seemed to counteract a lot of what we were doing.”
Rineker concurred, saying Mercy was able to touch a lot of balls and seemed content to slow down the play.
“There were a lot of times where they just put the ball back over to try and keep us off balance or wait for us to make a mistake,” Rineker said. “Mercy blocked well, and another good thing they did was they served tough.”
Rineker, however, knew his team would not go quietly into the night.
The Bruins stormed back in the next two sets, again jumping to the early leads. But the outcome would be different as they held Mercy at bay.
In game three, Central Hardin never trailed, leading early at 6-2 on a dump kill from Vest.
Lewis made it 9-6 when she blistered a shot off the fingertips of a defender and later blasted two more kills from the middle position to make it 21-13.
The Jaguars closed within 23-20, but there would be no late rally, as Atcher hammered down another kill to make it 24-20 before the game ended on a Mercy setting error.
The Bruins only trailed 2-1 in the fourth set, before taking command. They led 8-4 on a kill from Atcher and 12-7 thanks to another putdown from Lewis in the middle.
Mercy rallied within 21-20, but Central Hardin would deny any comeback.
Atcher started the final 4-0 run with a roll shot between two diving defenders. Vest used a dump kill to make it 24-20 and Taylor tied the match with a deft tip kill inside the right sideline.
“One thing I know about these girls is that they will never stop fighting until the last point,” Rineker said. “Win or lose there is just no quit in them. A lot of teams down oh-two would have laid down and packed it in.
“Not this team,” added Rineker. “They went all out and stayed tough. That’s what you can expect from them.”
That never-say-die attitude propelled the Bruins to an early 6-2 lead in the fifth set as Lewis (two kills) and fellow senior Addison Keith (three kills) combined for five points.
But the wheels came off from there, as the Jaguars, who had 22 blocks for the match, again stiffened at the net, benefiting from two blocks, three kills and three Central Hardin errors to go on a 6-0 run for a 9-6 lead.
The Bruins would get as close as 10-8 on a kill from Atcher, before Mercy closed out the match on a 5-0 run.
“It’s hard to see it end like this,” said Lewis, who had a team-high 15 kills in her final appearance in a Lady Bruin uniform. “But I have no regrets. I didn’t want to leave anything in the tank. The whole team didn’t leave anything in the tank. There are so many emotions going on now, but it was a fun year. This was a great team to be a part of.”
Central Hardin, the winningest program in 5th Region history, ended its year at 36-5.
The Bruins lose Lewis and Keith to graduation, but return a strong nucleus that will be one of the favorites next year to win the region again.