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The huge smiles and even bigger sighs underscored the simultaneous relief and joy surrounding Anderson County volleyball last Thursday.
The host Lady Bearcats dug themselves out of two deep holes to register a thrilling 25-23, 26-24 win over defending 28th District champion Henry County.
It was more than just a nail-biter, though.
Anderson showed the heart needed to make a run at a second district title in three years and several Lady Bearcats demonstrated the ability that has prompted coach Corey Sayre to dub this as the most talented team in his four years at the helm.
But Anderson also saw the fine line - maybe the thickness of those chewed nails - that exists between the Lady Bearcats and the defending champs.
"This was a real important game," said Anderson captain Catherine Christensen, who said that Sayre had repeatedly talked to his team about the contest's magnitude.
When Chelsea Payne recorded her third block of the night to record the match's final point, the brief celebration began in earnest. Winning district matches in the first two dates of the season has put the Lady Bearcats in good position out of the gate.
It did not look that it would be a happy ending early as Henry roared to 4-0 leads in both games, expanding the margin to 8-1 in the opener.
"We get ourselves in a hole to start the game," said Sayre, who called timeouts when Henry bolted to the 4-0 cushions. Sayre reminded his team to stay focused, but lamented the fact that his team rallied to take a 10-5 lead in the second game only to see it slip away.
"We got cocky and thought it was going to be easy. The same thing happened in the Bluegrass Games against Bowling Green," Sayre said.
But Thursday, the Lady Bearcats recovered after seeing their advantage turn into a 15-12 deficit as Payne scored three kills while Cindy Zhang and K.K. Fitzpatrick both served aces in Anderson's next nine points.
"I was getting nervous out there," said Christensen, who was constantly exhorting her teammates.. "I was trying to pick people up."
The Lady Wildcats still showed just how close the district race is expected to be, tying things at 24 before ending a thrilling exchange of eight volleys with a hitting error. Payne then ended things with her final block.
Payne, a sophomore, also recorded eight kills on the night. "She can just dominate a game," Sayre said.
Anderson had methodically chipped away in the first game, finally taking the lead at 23-22 on yet another kill by the athletic Payne. Fitzpatrick also had some strong assists on the night.
The joy will be short-lived though. The Lady Bearcats were scheduled to play Scott County Tuesday night after press time and will travel to Shelby County Thursday for another district match-up that could be just as scintillating as last week's.
"I think our girls will be up for every game now," Sayre said. "Shelby County is a much better team than they were last year. They started a club program and some of our girls played on that team. Some of the Henry County girls did too.
Shelby County, Henry County and us are all about the same. It will be very close."
The Anderson junior varsity took a 25-21, 25-23 win over Henry County in the preliminary match to go 2-0 on the season.
Anderson County 2, Eminence 0
Anderson County looked to be a long way from being a contender for the district championship in Tuesday's season opening win over Eminence. The scoreboard read that Anderson rolled to a 25-15, 25-12 win over the Lady Warriors, but Anderson trailed early in both games before winning.
The Lady Bearcats were on the wrong end of a 9-7 score before taking control in the first game, then overcame erratic service and a 3-1 deficit to win the second. "It is hard to get up for this game," Anderson coach Corey Sayre said.
After shedding some of the doldrums early, Anderson established superiority and was never seriously threatened.
"After the first few points, we started passing the ball much better," Sayre said. "It has been a while since we played."