STERLING – For a few fleeting moments, Eastland had its postseason mojo in high gear.
A late rally had the Cougars on the verge of stealing the first set away from mighty Durand in the first semifinal Monday night at the Class 1A Newman Sectional.
Instead, the Bulldogs survived, then regrouped on their way to a 26-24, 25-12 victory, and with it, a berth in the sectional final on Wednesday. Durand will take on Keith County Day, a 25-11, 25-15 winner against Leland-Earlville in the second semifinal.
Eastland (17-17-1) was down by six points (22-16) late in the first set before making things interesting. A service error, a bad set and a hitting error by Durand got the Cougars to within 24-22. That was followed by a tip kill by Karlie Krogman and an ace by Mac Byer to knot the score at 24-24, whipping the Eastland crowd into a frenzy.
Durand (32-1-1), however, quickly restored order. A tip kill by Abby Erickson got the Bulldogs to set point, and a kill from Katie Nevdal finished things off.
“The first match was so exciting,” Byer said. “I’ll remember this match by the crowd just screaming at the end of that first match. It was awesome.”
The Cougars jumped out to a 5-1 lead, capped by an ace from Jordan Miller, in the second set, but it was all Bulldogs after that. Durand scored eight straight points after Eastland’s early run, and steadily pulled away from there.
“They were just fighting really hard,” Byer said. “We were too, but I think they just had us beat. Somewhere in the middle, I think my entire team realized, or at least I did, oh, this is starting to end. The reality of it hit us.”
Katie Krogman paced Eastland with seven kills, six digs and three blocks, while Sage Walrath added four kills. Gabby Snyder contributed 13 digs, and Erica Dambman (11) and Erin Henze (7) combined for 18 assists.
Coming off two trips to state, including a championship in 2015, Eastland was expected to be in rebuild mode in 2017. It didn’t post the gaudy record of some of the Cougar teams of the recent past, but did rally to win a regional for the 16th time in the last 20 seasons.
“I’m extremely proud of these young ladies and what they accomplished this year,” first-year head coach Kelsey Pierce said. “I told them from the start won-loss records don’t matter to me. What matters to me is that we grow as a team, and that we get better every contest. I feel that we did that. Nobody thought we would be in the running for a regional, and we ended up having a great end to our year.”
“I think the strongest thing we had this year wasn’t hitting skill or anything like that,” Byer added. “We set a goal that we wanted to feel like a team. Before, we hadn’t felt like a team. I think we achieved that in the middle of the season, and that’s what got us the regional title.”
McKenzie Damon led Durand with eight kills, Alyssa Brauer had six kills and a block, Kaite Asche had five kills and two blocks, and Marissa Kelsey and Jaci Damon each had seven digs. Kelsey also dished 22 assists.
Durand head coach Molly Kelsey looked at defense as the key to getting things turned in the Bulldogs’ favor.
“The first game we didn’t have control of our defense, nor our serve receive,” Kelsey said. “The second game, we knew where they wanted to hit, and that really helped us set our defense. That was the difference.”
Durand avenged a three-set loss to Eastland in a 2016 Eastland Sectional semifinal. This year, the Bulldogs’ lone loss was to Stockton, and they tied Riverdale.
Durand defeated Keith Country Day 25-22, 12-25, 25-22 in a game at the Oregon Tournament on Sept. 2.