Playing neighboring Polk County for the first time, the teams split the first two games before the Bearettes finished strong by scoring 44 of the final 62 points in the match for a 3-1 victory — 25-16, 20-25, 25-12, 25-11.
“It was a typical first match,” declared Bradley head coach Christy McElhaney. “We were playing without Brooke (Copeland), we were rusty and it took us a little while to work out the kinks.”
Still recovering from recent surgery on her left elbow, Copeland hopes to be back in action as soon as she gets her stitches out this week and the doctor releases her.
“We had several girls that this was their first varsity match, so they were nervous. Once we got into our rhythm we settled down and played a lot better,” coach McElhaney assessed. “We had way too many unforced errors in the first two games, but then we settled down. We still have some areas to work on as we have a lot of new players.”
The Bearettes, who advanced to the TSSAA substate playoffs last season, will have a strong test this evening as two-time state tournament participant East Hamilton comes to Jim Smiddy Arena for its first-ever District 5-AAA competition.
The Lady Hurricanes opened their season with a 3-0 shutout of Silverdale Baptist Academy Monday evening. “They (EH) are a good team and will be a strong test for us this early in the season,” stated coach McElhaney.
In Monday’s opener, the teams traded the lead five times and had seven ties in the first 14 points before Bradley went on a 7-1 run to get a little breathing room.
Senior Rebecca Reuter, the matching 6-foot-2 bookend to Copeland, pushed the lead to 21-11 with her second ace of the night to key a string of five straight service points.
Not willing to just surrender, Polk County fought back with a 6-3 run of its own, including an ace by Kasey Combs to close the gap to 24-16, but Reuter slammed the door with her fifth kill of the contest to end the opening game.
In the second game, the hosts jumped ahead 6-2, but the girls from Benton clawed back in it with a 14-5 run, including aces from Emily Bates, Erin Fretwell and Aubrie Bowman.
Bradley fought back to close the gap to three twice (at 18-15 and 23-20), with junior Lisa Duvall serving up back-to-back aces in the final rally. Polk evened the match by posting the final two points of Game 2 on Bearette errors.
After the teams traded the first 11 points of the third game, Bradley turned the switch with a 7-1 streak that included an ace by sophomore Julia Gaither to go with kills from newcomer Natalie Jennings and Duvall, plus downed blocks by Duvall and Reuter.
The squads traded the next eight points before the Bearettes closed out the game with an emphatic 8-2 roll with Jennings slamming home a trio of winners, Duvall killing two more, plus a kill and an ace by Gaither.
Polk hung with the hosts early in the final game, trailing just 7-6 before Bradley used a 5-0 run, including four service points and an ace by junior Noa Williams, to pull ahead for good.
The Bearettes closed the door with a late 8-0 run with Reuter and sophomore Gabby Ghassedi combining for seven straight service winners before sophomore Monica Johnson did the honors with a kill for the final point of the night.
“Jennings is our home-schooler that just enrolled this year and played really well tonight,” praised coach McElhaney of the sophomore’s dozen kills and three blocks. “Duvall struggled a little early, but once she got her rhythm, she turned it on (11 service points, seven kills, four digs, four aces and a block).”
Reuter finished the evening with 11 kills, five digs, three blocks, a pair of aces and an assist, while junior setters Chanler Grady and McKenna Stinnett posted 19 and 17 assists respectively.
Gaither helped out with eight kills, a half dozen digs and five aces. Johnson had four kills and a block, while sophomore Breelee Arms dug out five balls. Freshman Hallie Hughes handed out five assists and an ace.
“We lost four seniors from last year’s substate team and only have three returning (Reuter, Copeland, Duvall) that were part of our starting rotation,” related coach McElhaney. “We only have two seniors (Reuter and Copeland) out of 34 girls in the program, so we have a lot of younger players that will see varsity time.”
“Once we get Brooke (Copeland) back and figure out where everybody fits best, we’ll be OK. I have yet to have all six starters together all summer long,” she added. “We have some good height outside of Brooke and Becca, and our hitters are looking good. We need to solidify our libero and setter play. We are still trying to force some things, but we’ll settle down.”
Trying to get some much-needed court experience in a hurry, Bradley not only has regular season matches set for three of the first four days of the season, but will host the annual Bradley Bash Friday and Saturday with many of the area’s top teams gathering for the event.
“We have a bunch of matches scheduled for this week, so we are going to get experience in a hurry,” coach McElhaney remarked. “We have a good, strong field coming in for the Bash, so there will be plenty of good action going the whole time.”