Benjamin Russell area volleyball

Andy Anders / The Outlook Benjamin Russell coach Magan Ford addresses her team during a timeout against Stanhope Elmore Thursday, Oct. 14.

Unfortunately for Benjamin Russell Thursday, the third time turned out to be the charm for Stanhope Elmore.

The Wildcats needed a win in the first round of area tournament play to extend their season at the Wetumpka High School gymnasium, and were playing a team in the Mustangs they’d beaten in four sets on two occasions earlier this season.

Thursday, it was Stanhope who bested Benjamin Russell in four sets.

Match point may remain a topic of contention for some time after a controversial call, but the fact stands that the careers of four seniors came to a close as the Wildcats were eliminated from postseason play.

“My first thought on the game is that an official shouldn’t be the deciding factor in a game,” Benjamin Russell coach Magan Ford said.

She added later that it’s a position the Wildcats shouldn’t have been in in the first place.

“We had plenty of chances to take care of the ball before that and we didn’t.”

The run up to that final play was one of intrigue.

Benjamin Russell opened the fourth set, a must win if it wanted to comeback and take the match, on the back foot and trailed 17-12 midway through. That Stanhope lead was cut to 17-15, then re-extended to 19-15.

An unrelenting volley ensued. Neither team could force a ball to hit the floor no matter how powerful their attacks looked.

Zaria Roberson, Benjamin Russell’s best hitter statistically both in the match and throughout the season, had her shot tipped by Stanhope middle blocker Anna Wilson. The ball fluttered straight up in the air. Wilson landed, bounced back up and finally slammed the ball home to conclude the point and hand the Mustangs a 20-15 lead.

The crowd roared and it felt the match was a foregone conclusion. That feeling grew stronger after a couple back-and-forth exchanges left the tally at 23-17.

For the Wildcats, whose mantra has been “fight” all season, they weren’t going down so easy.

“The seniors, they stepped up, they could have easily felt sorry for themselves, given up when we were down by six but that’s just the people that they are,” Ford said. “I know they’re gonna do great things from here on out.”

Senior middle blocker Laura Thames recorded an emphatic kill and followed with a block to finish a four-point rally and cut the deficit to 23-21. A Benjamin Russell attacking error yielded a match point for Stanhope, and that’s where the controversy began.

As Benjamin Russell sophomore Kennedy Tate went up to set the ball to a teammate, one of Stanhope’s blockers reached toward the net and stuffed her shot. 

Blockers aren’t allowed to reach past the net to stop an opposing attack before it’s completed, they have to let the opposing team finish its attack, Ford said, adding that that’s precisely what the Mustangs’ player did. 

The block was ruled clean by the first official, who immediately whistled the match dead once the point concluded in favor of Stanhope. Ford felt the judge should have at least conferred with other referees before signalling the end of the match.

“The official ended the game. Wouldn’t even talk to her partner, she didn’t have a partner I guess, but she wouldn’t talk to the official on the opposite side,” Ford said. “He would’ve overturned it. It was a clear miss. So instead of talking about what four seniors did, we’re talking about what an adult didn’t do. That’s never right.”

Stanhope got in such a position to win primarily through the play of outside hitter Kelbi Johnson, a high leaper with great striking power who fueled a strong collective effort on the front row for the Mustangs, even if she rotated to the back at times.

“She’s really strong and she was having a good night,” Ford said. “We defended her very well in the first set, and we won the first set. Then she kind of took over the last three sets. But she’s smart, she serves the ball well, she places the ball well and they get the ball to her as often as they can.”

Thames and Roberson will graduate for Benjamin Russell this spring, along with star libero JaNiya Martin and right side hitter Emma Tapley.

Ford expressed gratitude for the mentality each of her fourth-years brought into the program.

“They’re the leaders out there, and that’s why it makes me so mad to see it end the way it did, without them getting a chance to end it, because they do everything right,” Ford said. “To see it taken out of their hands, it’s heartbreaking because they’ve done everything right for four years, they fought, they were fighting at the end.”

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