By Matthew Yoder
All great runs eventually come to a conclusion. Chincoteague’s historic 2019 season ended with a semifinal loss to Rappahannock in region 1A competition. The three sets to one defeat was not for lack of effort. The Red Raiders just proved to be too formidable for the Ponies.
Chincoteague’s focus during pregame drills was palpable, and it carried over to an all-around inspired team effort in the first set. Alanna Hall was a setting workhorse during drills and opened the set assisting teammate Emma Jackson for a statement-delivering spike on the first point. Strong back line play from Maxine Fernandez, accurate serves from Delilah Flores, and net dominance by Caroline Shelley ignited a raucous Pony Pen and forced an early Rappahannock timeout at 6-2.
The Red Raiders, too, appeared concentrated and technically sound in drills, but at times in the set they looked as a team just feeling out their opponent. Shelley continued to make the net her domain. She would record kills and follow them with blocks and as the Ponies drove the score to 19-10 they forced another Rappahannock timeout. Out of the timeout the Red Raiders made a mini-run to get back into the set. Despite a great dig by Jackson, the Red Raiders bested the Ponies on a long rally and climbed within six points, urging Chincoteague coach Sarah Sharpley to steady her team.
Assistant coach, Jimmy Bloxom, pushed the Ponies to “be aggressive” out of the timeout, as this was the method of play that helped to build the early advantage. Shelley delivered a spike out of the timeout and a couple of points later Chincoteague got within one of earning the set.
The Red Raiders again mounted a charge on great serves from freshman Anna Lee Harris, but a good save from Flores led to things coming full circle in the set for the Ponies, with Jackson securing a lead out the gate with a spike.
The Chincoteague Ponies and their fans were very much alive and Rappahannock was put on notice.
Rappahannock’s youth was on display in the second set, and it was an energy well beyond its years. Harris helped her Red Raiders stage a comeback in the first set and opened the second frame with a 9-0 run on her serve. Hall covered the entire court for the Ponies, diving and making great passes deep to the Red Raiders back line, but to no avail. Hall and Flores were great again on the back line and Shelley and Jackson also played well at net, but a real star emerged for the Red Raiders. Candace Slaw delivered an unstoppable performance. Like Harris, Slaw is a freshman, but played like a well-seasoned pro. She tallied spikes in bunches and with great ease and was aided at the net by enthusiastic play from Julia Whelan.
As Chincoteague transitioned to defensive mode, Harris and Slaw were given too many opportunities for kills, and time and again they were as accurate as they were powerful. The set ended with a spike from Ella Campbell, helping the Red Raiders level the match.
As well as the Ponies played in the first set they needed to sustain that sort of effort and hope to again rattle Rappahannock to keep pace. The Red Raiders wouldn’t allow that to happen. They stayed determined and just outplayed with their freshman class. Harris and Slaw increased their efforts, and Whalen brought an intensity too much to overcome. The third and fourth sets were largely copies of the second, and the Red Raiders powered themselves beyond the Ponies for the victory.
The play was competitive throughout, but Rappahannock set leads that were difficult to approach.
“We did all we could living on the edge, we gave them big leads and it’s tough fighting back,” said Bloxom. He was still encouraged by the effort.
“We played tough with them, they didn’t come over and embarrass us, they’re a powerhouse and will be for a long time,” Bloxom said. Rappahannock’s coach, Kristin Patterson, was unsure of the effect of a four and a half hour drive on her team and what they’d encounter on the Eastern Shore. Ultimately her team looked very prepared, but she was nonetheless congratulatory to her opponent.
“I had no idea what we would get into, the score doesn’t do them justice, they gave us a great match,” said Patterson.
Everyone in attendance was entertained to tremendous individual and team efforts on both sides from seemingly everyone down the depth charts and fans from both schools remained on the court to celebrate these efforts.
Amidst the community of fans, coach Sharpley spoke of her final postgame speech of the season.
“I told them I was proud of them from the get-go,” said Sharpley. Rappahannock traveled from a volleyball rich region of the state and Sharpley was proud that her team represented the Shore with composed ability.
“It’s nice for them to see we’re competitive,” Sharpley said.
The loss negated the opportunity to automatically qualify for the state competition, but Sharpley is optimistic about her team’s future. “We still have strong players going into next year,” said Sharpley.
With underclassmen contributing from both sides it’s reasonable to believe these teams’ paths may cross again, and what a match it would be.