Benjamin Russell cruised through two best-of-three matches up until set two of the second set.
After smoking Central of Clay County 25-16 in set one, the Wildcats trailed 23-21 in game two following a few attacking errors and positional mistakes.
Senior middle blocker Laura Thames and junior hitter Leah Leonard struck back from there, however, alternating kills to lock down a 25-23 set win to defeat the Volunteers.
“We’ve gotta take that out, that inconsistency where we’re waiting on the other team to mess up,” Benjamin Russell head coach Magan Ford said. “We took care of business the first set, looked good. Then the second set they were as flat as could be, ready to go home, every excuse in the book.”
Benjamin Russell swept Opelika and Central of Clay County on senior night Thursday, with fourth-years JaNiya Martin, Zaria Roberson, Laura Thames and Emma Tapley not only being honored between matches but also standing out as significant contributors, as they have all season, during them.
The Wildcats will still have work to do as the playoffs near, however, given it couldn’t maintain the same level of play through all four sets in the two matches, Ford said.
“To make it into the playoffs, we’re gonna have to take care of that,” Ford said. “I’ve said it and said it and said it. At some point they’ve gotta put it into action.”
Martin manned her libero spot with the same ruthless efficiency she has all year, and swung a few confident attacks from the back row. She collected multiple kills from deep spots in both sets against Opelika, who the Wildcats beat 25-14 and 25-19.
“Her leadership, her experience, her calmness, it’s gonna be hard to replace that,” Ford said. “We’ve come to rely on that, and it’s almost a crutch that we expect Jamm to be there. Anytime Jamm’s on the court, we’ve got a chance against anybody we play.”
Roberson entered Thursday as Benjamin Russell’s team leader in kills and blocks and showcased the powerhouse gameplay that’s made that the case.
Her highlight of the night may have been the first set against Clay, a game in which she recorded several emphatic kills and once ripped off an impressive four aces in a row. Not finished, she added four more kills and an ace in set two.
“It’s so big to see her come into her own, because she was so nervous about becoming a middle blocker,” Ford said. “She was unsure of herself last year. So to see her come into her own and take on that leadership role, it’s been really fun to watch. We’ve relied on her all year to get us going. If we need a point, the ball goes to Zaria.”
Thames has faced difficulties with injuries at a few points this season but still has been a huge factor for the team. Thursday she was limited by a rolled ankle sustained Saturday at Elmore County’s Block Party tournament.
When on-court, she managed to use more accuracy than power to get the job done on the front row, slipping attacks past opposing blockers with shots angled to the sides of the court. She collected several kills this way to go along with a few blocks.
“She’s always gonna be able to crank one, she has an amazing swing,” Ford said. “But what I’ve been impressed with this year is her volleyball IQ. She’s placing the ball instead of just swinging. She’s moving the ball all around, she’s mixing in tips well.”
Tapley’s been tasked with locking down the right side in 2021, a tough undertaking for any player. Her defensive presence has been key for the Wildcats this season, Ford noted.
“Emma has been a staple on the right side,” Ford said. “People that don’t understand volleyball don’t understand how big of a job she has. Her goal is to block their best hitter. I’ll tell her, ‘The only defense we have is you.’ And she gets hands on so many balls and slows down so many swings.”
Benjamin Russell will be back in action at home in a crucial area game against Stanhope Elmore Tuesday.