by PATRICK CASEY and REID TUCKER
Walton’s volleyball team was in the for long haul in back-to-back-to-back matches last week, winning four- and five-set victories against Crestview and Freeport on the road and against Marianna at home.
The Lady Braves first defeated Crestview on Monday, Sept. 17, in a back-and-fourth match, with scores running 16-25, 25-17, 14-25, 25-17 and 18-16.
Most recently, on Thursday, Sept. 20, the Lady Braves (9-1, 1-0 in District 1-4A) looked primed to sweep Marianna (5-4) after the first two sets went down easy at 25-19 and 25-21, but the visiting Tigers pulled out all the stops to win the third set 25-18. Whatever ambitions Marianna had to mount a come-from-behind win in the following two sets was quickly swept aside by Walton in the fourth set. The Lady Braves finished off their longtime rival by a convincing 25-7 final score.
Shalyn Bailey led Walton on the night with eight kills, but Sierra Contreras and Ashley Harper were close behind her with more than five kills apiece. Contreras had four blocks and Harper added another three, while also accounting for three service aces. Courtney Brown led on defense with four digs, supplemented by three kills while on the front row.
Marianna trailed by a point or two in the first set to tie the game at 8-8, with Porsha Morgan contributing as one of the team’s major attackers. Walton got the advantage back and extended its lead 15-9 with Harper in service with Contreras capitalizing on miscues on the other side of the net to get in some good kills. The Braves surged ahead to a 20-10 score, though Marianna’s Lexie Basford served her team to within striking distance before Walton’s Carly Davis’ attacks to mid-court finished off the visiting Bulldogs at the 25-19 mark.
The second set was much closer with the opposing sides battling through tie games all the way through 13-13. However, Walton’s Hailey Paulk turned the tide with a 5-zip scoring run from service, punctuated by strikes from Contreras, who made it a 20-13 game. Marianna, helped by a few Walton net faults, rallied back to within two points, but the Braves eventually took the win at 25-21 thanks to out-of-bounds hits and a serve into the net from Marianna’s Linsey Basford.
The Bulldogs all but wiped out Walton in the third set, with the Basfords and Whitney Lipford doing serious work at the net and from service to post a 13-4 lead over the Braves before the home team managed to break the rally. A few Marianna mistakes enabled Walton to close to 20-16, but the Braves got no further as Lexie Basford found the gaps in the defense, crushing down the set-winning kills for the 25-18 finish.
Seemingly undisturbed by the third-set loss, Walton resurged in the fourth set to dominate the visiting team at a decisive 25-7 final score. Blocks, big cross-court smashes and deft net-work gave Walton a 14-4 lead soon into the set, with Paulk and Contreras working together up close to add another five unanswered points before Davis’ serve was broken. Harper, a freshman, got two of her three blocks to get the swift 12-point decision against Marianna.
Two days prior, on Sept. 18, Walton earned a season sweep of Freeport as the Braves defeated the Bulldogs in four sets, with scores running 25-22, 26-24, 20-25 and 25-12. Walton took the opening game 25-22 as the Braves rallied from a 20-17 deficit behind the serving of Contreras and the net play of Brown. The visiting team pulled out the opener by winning eight of the final 10 points of the set.
The Lady Bulldogs appeared to be on the verge of evening the match as they led for most of the second set, holding a 24-20 margin but could not earn the final point as Walton’s Paulk came up with six straight winning serves, to pull out a 26-24 decision with the help of her teammates’ strong play on the floor.
Freeport took the third set 25-20 as the home team played a strong game and rallied from an early 10-8 deficit to take the lead at 15-12 going on to a 25-20 decision against the Lady Braves.
Walton did not let the match get away as the starters took the floor for the fourth, racing ahead to a 17-4 lead before closing out the match at 25-12. Bailey had a strong performance at the net, with several kill shots to help the Braves capture the road win.
The win comes as the fifth in a row against Freeport, though the Bulldogs lead 14-9 since 2001. Marla Harrell, in her eighth year as head volleyball coach, holds a record of 110 wins and 76 losses.