CLAYTON — It took a little jolt to bring Cleveland’s volleyball team back to reality Thursday afternoon.
But once they did, the Rams made quick work of visiting Smithfield-Selma, 3-1, in a Two Rivers 3A Conference match.
That jolt of reality came in the form of a 25-22 victory by the Spartans in the second game of the 25-12, 22-25, 25-12 25-13 triumph by the Rams.
The win enabled Cleveland to return to the .500 mark in Two Rivers Conference play, improving to 3-3, while climbing to 5-8 overall.
The Spartans were left still in search of their first conference victory, slipping to 0-6 in league action and 5-11 overall.
Having swept the Spartans in the previous meeting this season, the Rams combined strong efforts from their front line and service game, cruising to the 25-12 first set win.
Included in the effort were nine kills and five aces, scattered throughout the Cleveland lineup, while the back line defense held serve with eight digs.
The service game caught the Spartans off-balance In the opening minutes of the match, and put Smithfield-Selma in an early 6-0 hole.
The Spartans trimmed the deficit to 9-6, only to see Cleveland’s Courtney Morris deliver a pair of kills and an assist on another by Brittany Bucklin to push the margin to 14-6.
Walli Driggers added five service points moments later, including three aces, as Cleveland built a 21-9 lead.
But as easy as the first set was for the Rams, the second set, while not a nightmare, brought them back to reality.
“We came in with the attitude, we're going to win this game,” said Cleveland coach Megan Norris. “Then we started having problems with communication – we just weren't talking to each other the entire game.”
And while the Rams weren’t communicating, the Spartans were – particularly on defense – coming up with 17 digs in the set to rally from an early 4-1 deficit.
Tyler Hamilton led the way defensively with four digs in the set; Rachel Moore and Morgan Eatmon added three each while Kaitlyn Rabil and Heather Rabil both contributed a pair.
The defensive efforts of that group allowed the Spartans to play the Rams on even terms before a 4-0 run behind the serve of Holly Rabil enabled Smithfield-Selma to claim a 20-15 margin and hold on for the set victory.
“The girls kind of fired themselves up in that set,” said Spartans coach Chase Crocker. “They played like they had a little chip on their shoulders. It was something we were lacking in the first set.”
But that chip fell off their shoulders, and the Rams began communicating as a team again, using runs of 6-0 behind Morris and 5-0 behind Driggers in turning the pivotal third set from an 8-7 nailbiter to a 19-9 laugher despite another stellar defensive effort by the Spartans.
“The girls said they had had a let-down,” Norris said. “They thought they already had it won - but they came back and did so.”
The Spartans didn’t have an answer for Bucklin and Mariana Roe.
The duo made life miserable at the net for the Spartans, combining for 10 kills and six blocks in the final two games, while forcing Smithfield-Selma to alter its attack and defend patterns.
“We tried to make a few adjustments, but that didn't work out,” Crocker said. “And when it looked like we had made adjustments, they put the ball somewhere else – they did a great job of hitting.”
The decisive fourth set was almost a carbon-copy of the third.
The Rams jumped to a 5-1 lead, only to see the Spartans charge within 12-7 and gain confidence.
That confidence was broken by Morris, who delivered a 5-0 run, Driggers, a 4-0 spurt, and Bucklin, who dropped a pair of aces in a 3-0 run which built a 24-13 lead.
“They had a girl who would hit too well on our strong side,” Crocker said, "And they went cross-court a lot.
“We couldn't do anything with that kind of attack - it hurt quite a bit.”
Norris saw this victory as a possible springboard for the Rams.
“Hopefully, we can turn this season around in the next two weeks.”