OLIVE HILL —
Russell volleyball coach Darrell Adkins has never had a class miss the State Tournament in its four years with the Lady Devils. That streak continues.
After falling in the first game, Russell rallied to win the next three and defeated Rowan County 3-1 (20-25, 25-23, 25-21, 25-20) to win the 16th Region championship on Thursday at West Carter High School.
After the game, senior outside hitter Sydney Watkins was still trying to gather her thoughts about her first region title.
“I can’t even describe how it feels,” Watkins said. “I can’t even process it yet. It’s just unreal and I’m so overwhelmed. I’m so happy.”
In the 10 years that there has been a 16th Region in volleyball, Rowan County and Russell have met in the championship game five times.
And, all five times, the Lady Devils have come out the victors, a statistic that still serves as a shock for Adkins.
“(Rowan County coach) Steve (Walters) is the best coach in the region,” Adkins said. “He’s done more to promote volleyball in the region than any other coach, he’s served on state boards and I cannot for the life of me figure out how we beat him five times. I can’t explain it.”
Russell and Rowan County met just one time this regular season, with the Lady Vikings coming out on top back on Aug. 9.
“It seems like we can get them in the regular season and they get us in the tournament,” Walters said. “I’d give everything I have to flip-flop that.”
Rowan County (32-6) looked like it was going to cruise to the State Tournament, winning the first game 25-20 before jumping out to a 6-1 lead in the second game.
However, Russell (28-12) started a comeback in the second game, including two different occasions in which the Lady Devils scored five straight points.
Walters said Russell’s passing in the second game comeback, and a few costly errors by his team, were what really turned the momentum in the match.
“All their passes, that’s where the game was decided, in their passing tonight,” Walter said. “Their passes went up to their setters, thier setters put the ball on the net and it gave their hitters options.”
Watkins led the way for the Lady Devils, scoring 23 points, including four aces and, more importantly to her coach, 14 kills.
She went up against Rowan County’s 6-foot middle hitter Jessica Mullins, who picked up 16 blocks in the game, including a few key ones against Watkins.
But instead of watching her put her head down after the blocks, Adkins kept yelling at her to keep swinging.
“I’m so proud of her because Sydney Watkins had a tendency her whole career that if she gets two or three shots blocked, she gets discouraged,” Adkins said. “The only thing we said all week was keep hitting. It doesn’t matter how many they blocked just keep hitting.
“The more she hits ... the more we’ll score. I think she bought into that and kept swinging.”
Watkins said after getting a few of her shots blocked by Mullins, she became a little hesitant, but still kept looking for her shots.
“I tried to look for open spots to get around her,” Watkins said. “So yeah I was hesitant, but Darrell put a stop to that and told me to hit the ball through her.”
Mullins also had six kills and two aces for the Lady Vikings, but Walters felt his team as a whole wasn’t as aggressive as it needed to be.
“We just for some reason, whatever it was, left our aggression at home,” Walters said. “We went up (Wednesday against Greenup County) and we were terminating balls and tonight we went up and it was like we didn’t want to make mistakes.
“I thought we played cautious.”
Russell was not cautious with its net play, and got big things from a freshman hitter and an eighth-grade middle hitter.
Emma Ison, a freshman, had six kills, while eighth-grader Sara Hieneman had five blocks and five kills in the match.
Watkins said her two young teammates are some of the best players she has shared the court with.
“I would play with them over anyone on the front line,” she said. “They’re so talented that I’m scared to see what they’ll play like when they’re seniors.”
Adkins had even higher praise for the younger members of his front line.
“I’ve coached a lot of good players and some that have played in college,” Adkins said. “I have a freshman and eighth-grader that could be as good as I’ve ever had.”
The past three years the 16th Region was represented in Louisville by Ashland and the last team not named Ashland to go to Louisville was the Lady Devils.
And for their coach, when they get to Louisville the mission is simple and to the point.
“We’re going down there to have fun,” Adkins said with a smile. “We’re going to find a haunted house ... they can stay in the pool until it closes if they want to, but I want them to enjoy it.
“We’re going to go down there to play, but we’re going to go down there to enjoy the experience.”
KYLE HOBSTETTER can be reached at (606) 326-2658.