Thunder get revenge, snap state streak
The Eudora volleyball team's reign atop the state came to a close Saturday with a bang.
More accurately it was the sharp slap of leather on fist as St. James Academy ended the Cardinals' three-year stint as sub-state champions and state tournament qualifiers.
Eudora advanced to the sub-state final Saturday on St. James' home court, handling Baldwin and Kansas City-Bishop Ward en route to the final match against the Thunder.
The Cards struggled against Kansas' top-ranked team, however, falling 25-9, 25-16 amidst a flurry of powerful kills and a seemingly impenetrable wall of blockers.
"Our seniors are hurting right now and our underclassmen have to live with this for a year," Eudora coach Jill Stutler said. "It will spark them next year. They haven't ever experienced not going to state.
"St. James is a good team. They're on a mission right now and they're playing great ball."
That Eudora might have trouble later in the day was evident early, even though it cut through the first two matches in two games apiece.
The Cardinals, the eight-team tournaments No. 2 seed, beat No. 7 Baldwin for the fourth time this season to start things off. Eudora built a large and quick lead in the first game going up 17-8 before winning 25-13.
They won big in the second game too, 25-15, but neither came with the ease indicative of a Eudora team on top of its game. The Cardinals were tied in the second game 10-10 before a Nikki Snider kill finally sparked a decisive run, Eudora scoring 10 of the next 14 points and the final five in the match.
Eudora was victorious again in the next round against No. 3 Bishop Ward, but still seemed shy of the team that won last year's state championship.
Ward opened with a 3-0 lead and pushed it to 6-1 when an ace ricocheted off a Cardinal defender. Eudora battled back, but trailed until late in the game. A Haley Epperson kill made it 8-5 and a long, strong defensive stand cut the gap to 18-16.
Ward went long on a kill attempt to tie the game at 20 and a Snider kill finally gave Eudora the lead, 22-21. She then came up with a block to end the game.
"Against Baldwin we started slow, then we battled against Ward, which is what we've done the last couple weeks," Stutler said. "The kids fought."
Eudora didn't enter the final match against St. James without any momentum, however. A strong second game against Ward -- the best the Cardinals played all day -- had the team rolling.
Eudora led 6-0, 13-2 and 17-3 before Ward had any traction at all. The Cyclones never could recover and the Cardinals cruised to the championship match, 25-14.
"That second game was definitely a building point for us," Epperson said. "We got where we thought we needed to be for St. James."
The momentum from the Ward match didn't immediately dissipate, either. St. James recorded the first point with a block -- the eventual kryptonite to Eudora's championship repeat hopes -- but the Cardinals went up 4-1. Epperson and Elaina Kouri combined for a block and Kouri tapped another ball over for a point.
St. James followed a Snider kill with a ball out bounds and Eudora was up 6-3.
That was the high tide of the Cardinal cause, however.
Backed by a rowdy crowd, playing in its own brimming gymnasium and employing both scorching kills and stone-wall blocks, the Thunder earned their first trip to the state tournament.
St. James scored the next eight points then 14 of the next 16, frustrating Eudora's best kill artists and bruising its typically stout defense.
"Their blockers were all over the place," Epperson said. "It was really frustrating as a hitter to work around that.
Props to them. They were huge at the line and that was a big reason why things turned so quickly."
Eudora beat St. James in a three-game match for last year's sub-state title. Just how much did that memory weigh on the Thunder?
"If I'm being honest, a lot," St. James coach Nancy Dorsey said. "They wanted to get the rematch and chance to redeem themselves and they have been looking forward to it for a long time.
"We got that chance and it went our way."
Eudora hung in the second game longer, pulling to within 9-6 on an Epperson kill and 21-13 on a Snider strike, but couldn't force a third game.
"We did have momentum going into that first game. We were up and really excited," Epperson said. "We went down a little too quickly.
"It's probably going to take a few days. Our coach said what happens today ends at midnight, but we're looking forward to next season and we're really excited to come back with a chip on our shoulder."