BLUFF CITY, Tenn. – It’s known as the Patriot Palace and Dyer Dome, but Sullivan East High School’s gymnasium could have been called Riley’s Room on Tuesday night.
East senior Riley Nelson was the queen of the court as she ruled to the tune of 12 digs, 11 kills, six blocks and two aces in a 25-22, 25-16, 25-22 trumping of Tennessee High in the finals of the TSSAA Region 1-AA volleyball tournament.
Nelson collected a dozen kills in a 25-5, 25-17, 25-20 semifinal win over Grainger earlier on Thursday and was a no-doubter when it came time to choose tournament MVP honors, as she added that hardware to the District 1-AA tourney MVP and Three Rivers Conference hitter of the year accolades she had grabbed last week.
Her performance helped East (19-8) win its first regional championship since 2000 and the opportunity to host Gibbs on Thursday at 7 p.m. in the sub-state round of the Class AA tournament. Meanwhile Tennessee High (28-9) travels to traditional power Anderson County on Thursday.
“We haven’t gotten to host a sub-state match at home in a long time, so that’s very exciting,” Nelson said. “Tonight was awesome. The key for us was just doing the fundamentals, keeping our energy up and communication.”
East has been coming in loud and clear as the Patriots have won the last 10 sets they’ve played. This is a crew that has taken their game to a new level in the postseason.
“We really don’t have a weak link,” said East’s Hannah Hodge, who had 12 digs, seven kills and three aces in the triumph over THS. “If somebody has a down night, we have somebody else right there picking them up. We have a good mentality right now.”
The Patriots also have plenty of stamina as they played their semifinal and final matches consecutively on Tuesday.
“I like playing back-to-back,” said Sullivan East coach Tracy Graybeal. “We set the schedule as the host and sometimes when you play and then sit, you get cold. They’re worn out right now, but we took care of business and at the end of the day that’s what matters.”
Hayley Grubb (21 digs), Jenna Hare (12 digs, eight kills, three aces) and Mia Hoback (34 assists) also played well in the title match. Hare, Grubb and Hodge joined Nelson on the all-tournament team.
“It’s like a machine and every person has to go to make that machine work,” Graybeal said. “That’s from the pass to the set to the swing.”
Tennessee High clinched its eighth sub-state berth in program history with a 25-17, 25-16, 25-20 victory over Greeneville in the semifinals, but the Vikings couldn’t solve Sullivan East in the title match.
The Vikings did cut what were once deficits of 18-9 and 19-11 to two points late in the third set, but the Patriots powered through and fittingly Nelson had the match-clinching kill.
“They have five seniors that lead their team,” said THS coach Mary C. Johnson. “We’re young and this group has never been in postseason play before. It’s one of those things where it’s a disadvantage not having a bunch of seniors and never being here.”
Sophie Meade, Madison Blair and Sydnee Pendland earned spots on the all-tournament team. Meade had 25 kills, Blair slammed down 17 kills and Pendland had 41 digs combined in Tuesday’s two matches.
“East is a great team,” Johnson said. “What do you say? We’re happy to be playing Thursday and we have a chance to go to the state tournament and that was our goal. I don’t care if we play at home or we play in Knoxville.”
While Tennessee High hits the road, the squad from Bluff City will be at home and the Patriots will try to keep playing their best volleyball at the most important time of the season.
“That group of kids right there,” Graybeal said. “As a coach, in my opinion, you try your best to sell your system, but at the end of the day when your kids buy in, that’s what wins games. They played remarkably well yet again.”
firstname.lastname@example.org | Twitter:@Hayes_BHCSports | (276) 645-2570