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'We did it': Rustburg volleyball repeats as state champion
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'We did it': Rustburg volleyball repeats as state champion

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SALEM — When Rustburg needed to make a defensive play in the back row Saturday, Delaney Scharnus did it. When the Red Devils needed someone to answer Tabb’s top hitter, Kate Hardie did it. When RHS needed to send a message early by smashing the ball down the line, Eden Bigham did it. When the team needed to reassert its dominance with a momentum-building play late, Meah Coles did it.

Taken together, their efforts at the Salem Civic Center added up to the final victory players, coaches and supporters had been searching for: another Class 3 state championship.

“We did it,” Hardie said, the simple phrase offered as the final word for a season that vaulted the Red Devils to the top spot in the commonwealth for the second straight season. Individually, players stepped up with the brightest lights of the season shining on them Saturday, and as a unit, accomplished the goal they had in mind long before the season commenced.

RHS toppled Tabb 3-1, bouncing back from a tight loss in the third set to dominate again in the fourth set, as it had in the first two. After recording sores of 25-15, 25-17, 23-25, 25-16, the Red Devils hoisted the trophy for the second time since April, when they captured the crown on their home court in Rustburg to end the previous campaign.

“It feels really good,” Coles said, “to see all the work we’ve put in since last season pay off.” Coles, Hardie, Bigham, Scharnus and Ari Hudson, the team’s senior leaders, helped Rustburg (28-1) finish as back-to-back state champs, a feat never before accomplished by the program.

In picking up win No. 83 for their careers, the quintet crossed off the final item on their checklist — one they began writing in middle school, when they started playing together. Their title last season made all the more real the understanding that they could go down as repeat champs.

“They work hard. They’ve always worked hard,” coach Kristen Hardie — who earned her third state title with RHS, after claiming her first back in 1992 as a player — said, particularly pointing to the seniors, the heartbeat of her team. “So I couldn’t be happier for them.”

There were standout moments for every player who stepped between the lines for Rustburg on Saturday. In addition to their veteran leaders, the Red Devils got contributions from Nahla Bigham, Eden’s freshman sister who lines up as a middle hitter, Jenna Bryant and Emma Blankinship.

Nahla Bigham recorded three kills and put up a big block against power hitter Sarah Callender, slowing down attacks to give the RHS defense behind her a better chance to pick up balls. Blankinship and Bryant had two (one each) of Rustburg’s 13 aces, and Blankinship provided 12 digs.

And the seniors filled the space between those points by playing scrappy defense and using their offensive firepower to exploit Tabb’s weaknesses.

Hudson, Scharnus (10 digs) and Coles (39 assists, 14 digs, one block, three aces) were the quiet playmakers for RHS. Hudson’s kill on a quick set from Coles came in a 6-2 run that helped the Red Devils pull away in the second set. Scharnus was responsible for an incredible defensive stand on a dig late in the same set, which set up a chance for Kate Hardie to crush away a kill.

Immediately after recording the point, Hardie turned and pointed to Scharnus, yelling her gratitude for making the play possible.

“This is where we all come together,” said Scharnus, who was back on the court this season after missing the last with a knee injury. “I have a role, she has a role, they have a role, and it all came together.” Scharnus overcame a collision on the second point of the match in which she hit her knee; it shook her up and made her question whether she’d be OK to keep playing, but she didn’t exit.

Eden Bigham played the role of sparkplug early, recording seven of her 16 kills in the first set. Bigham, who also had six digs and three aces, and Kate Hardie were close to unstoppable in the first two sets.

Rather than going for the more natural cross-court shots from the outside spot, they were smart about placing the ball to take advantage of what Tabb’s defense gave them.

“Normally we leave the line open,” said Tabb coach Maggie Kowalski, who has led her team to three state title game appearances in the past four seasons, “ because we don’t really see too many team shooting for that.”

Hardie had six kills in the first set thanks quite often to that line shot, and finished with a match-high 27 kills — her sixth match of the season with more than 20 kills and fourth of at least 25 — to go with 17 digs, four aces and one block.

Tabb (21-9) — which countered offensively with Callender (20 kills), a senior committed to play at William & Mary — adjusted by the third set. Its tall blockers, including 6-foot-3 middle hitter Alli Pratt, were more effective in the set, too, recording two of the Tigers’ four total blocks.

Rustburg gave away nine points in a 14-9 Tabb run that led to a 20-all tie. The Tigers, who overcame seven service errors in the set, ultimately broke a fourth tie at 23 with two straight kills to keep their hopes alive.

“We know how to play volleyball,” Kate Hardie said, explaining the message preached inside the RHS huddle at that point. “We know we can have that energy, that focus, that drive, and we did.”

RHS tallied three aces and 10 kills in the deciding set, including one from Coles, an unlikely source as the setter. But Coles made her chance count, turning in a highlight-reel kill (her only one of the evening) after demolishing a ball that came back her way on a Tabb dig.

It was as if time slowed down, and everyone in the arena knew what she was going to do with the gift. She bounced off the court and sent the ball ricocheting off the floor on the other side of the net, forcing a Tabb timeout.

“She crushed it,” Kristen Hardie said as she stood near the quiet, now-empty court as her players, their families and other RHS fans celebrated in the lobby above.

That was the moment, the coach then admitted, the Red Devils knew they were going to bring home another title. Just minutes stood between those players and the opportunity to say the phrase they’d longed to: “We did it.”

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