Wednesday, September 27, 2017

SPORTS STORY >> Lady Rabbits sweep ’Stangs

Leader sports editor

Blended conferences cause a lot of confusion, but it was important for Lonoke to not only avenge its season-opening loss to Central Arkansas Christian on Monday, the Lady Jackrabbits needed a sweep. That’s exactly what they got, trailing only briefly throughout the entire match, Lonoke beat the host Lady Mustangs by scores of 25-16, 26-24 and 25-19 in North Little Rock.

Lonoke is in blended District 9, while CAC is blended District 8, but the two teams will converge for the 4A-Central Conference tournament when the postseason rolls around in a couple of weeks. CAC had beaten Lonoke 3-1 back on Aug. 24.

Lonoke’s sweep on Monday gives the Lady Jackrabbits the advantage when 4A-Central coaches convene to discuss how to seed a conference tournament with teams from four different blended districts.

Lonoke’s blended district doesn’t include another team above the 2A classification, and competition there has been easy as they have rolled up a 6-0 record and won all 18 sets by wide margins.

Monday’s match wasn’t that easy, but Lonoke only trailed for a brief moment in game two. When Keiunna Walker’s kill attempt sailed long, CAC led 3-2. Lonoke then scored the next four points in a row, and never trailed again. CAC did come back and tie game two at 24. A Kennedy White tip kill gave Lonoke match point with Walker at the service line. She dialed up a big sinking serve that landed in the middle of the CAC defense for a set-winning ace.

A key strength for the Lady Jackrabbits this season has been depth, and it was needed on Monday. Middle blocker Maddie Pool went down with an ankle injury late in game three.

Junior Hope Newkirk entered the game for the first time with Lonoke clinging to an 18-16 lead after scoring the first five points of the set. She finished things off with a match-point kill right down the middle of the court, landing just inside the boundary.

“She stepped right in and held her own,” said Lonoke coach Laura Park. “That being said, this was another total team effort. The goal is to try to get better each game and peak in the postseason. It’s hard to tell if you’re getting better in our blended conference. But you get better playing teams like CAC, and I think we showed improvement tonight.”

Lonoke (12-4-1, 6-0) grabbed a 3-1 lead early in game one, and that score toggled between a one and two-point margin for a long time. Lonoke finally put some distance between itself and CAC (13-4, 4-1) when Pool served three-straight points, including an ace, that made it 11-7. Walker and Gracie Mason later served up aces that helped the Lady Rabbits stretch the margin to as much as 19-12.

Pool took serve again after a White kill put Lonoke up 21-16, and she served out the set, including one more ace for good measure for Lonoke’s 24th point.

Lonoke’s biggest lead in the hotly contested second game was four points. The Lady Jackrabbits led 11-7, 15-11 and 20-16 before CAC mounted a comeback. The Lady Mustangs first tied it at 21 with a 5-1 run that forced Park to call a timeout. Only one of CAC’s five points in the run were the result of a kill. The other four were all Lonoke errors.

After the break, Lonoke junior Emily Armstrong got a kill from the right side that broke the CAC streak. She then took serve and sent CAC’s back line diving to save an ace. Lady Mustang Faith Elder made the save, but the ball floated just over to Lonoke’s side of the net, where Pool made an easy dunk over the net for a 23-21 lead. The next serve was wide, and CAC tied it on a kill by Bailey Jones. They traded points to 24 before White’s kill and Walker’s ace gave Lonoke the win.

The Mustangs battled back from Lonoke’s fast start in game three, and trailed just 18-16 when Pool went down. Before Newkirk came through with the kill on match point, Kayla Shelton got three kills to help extend Lonoke’s lead back to 22-17. Kills by Walker and Armstrong on Shelton’s serve made it 24-17 before Newkirk sealed the match.

Lonoke’s depth at hitter shows in the stats. Five different players had at least five kills. Walker led the way with nine. Shelton and Pool finished with seven each while Armstrong and White had five apiece.

Jones led all players with 11 kills for CAC. Brittney Perry had seven and Cicely young six.

Over the weekend, Lonoke also defeated CAC in its own one-day tournament at the Gina Cox Center. Neither team was at full strength for the event, but Lonoke won the tournament, which included Sylvan Hills, Palestine-Wheatley, Helena-West Helena Central and the Little Rock Flames home-school team.