MCLEANSBORO -- Whenever you've poured your heart, sweat, soul and tears into something, it's tough for it to come to an end.
Had just one or two plays went differently, Thursday's postgame scene in McLeansboro following the Hamilton County Regional Volleyball Championship could have had a drastically different look.
It could have been Mount Carmel erupting in celebration, hugging their teammates, embracing their parents, posing for a photo with the Regional Championship trophy, knowing their goal from day one had finally been realized. Instead, it was Massac County who partook in the celebration, crushing the aspirations of a senior-laden Mount Carmel group and ending their season.
They fell to Massac County in straight sets (25-23, 29-27), despite both sets coming down to the last point.
Although Mount Carmel has a plethora of veteran experience, they lacked a level of postseason experience, which is something that certainly factored in early on.
The Patriots (32-5) opened the match with a 13-1 lead, dictating the tempo and having the Lady Aces (21-8) completely out of sync out of the gate. The Patriot fans were into it and all the pressure was on Mount Carmel, who was in serious trouble and needed to muster a response against what was quickly developing into a deafening environment.
Mount Carmel Head Volleyball Coach Kelsey Beckerman got the feel that her group was somewhat timid out of the gate, especially against Massac's 6-foot-3 hitter Cali McCraw, whose presence was immensely felt around the net.
"I think we came out a little unsure of the whole situation," Beckerman said. "We haven't played in this match before so we didn't really know what to do, what to expect, how to handle it. When you're down 13-1 and can come back to make a run, I told the girls that's something you can still be proud of."
With an early 12-point deficit, all you can really do is slowly chip away at the lead and maintain the belief that you still have a shot.
Virtue of a 12-2 run of their own, the Lady Aces played their way back into the set. Both teams showcased some impressive plays in quite a few back and forths in the stretch, including a couple nice digs at the net by junior Taya York and senior Madi Merritt, who kept the play alive to lead to kills by senior Madeline Goldman and junior Allie McPherson.
What was once a dominant 13-1 lead, was now a 23-23 tie, despite Mount Carmel never claiming a lead in the set to that point. Massac converted the last two points on a kill and a miscommunication by Goldman and senior Addie Drone, who uncharacteristically ran into each other going for a ball near the Mount Carmel bench.
"They're just fighters," Beckerman spoke of her team's remarkable rally. "There was never the mentality of we're down, we may as well stay down. It was always there's the next point, the next play, we can pick up and move on. Especially the last two games have been more intense and we've done that, it's proven itself time and time again this season especially against bigger teams, stronger teams like that. There's never been a worry."
Now on the brink of elimination, the urgency had to be dialed up for the Lady Aces.
Massac controlled a 17-13 lead just past the midway mark of the second set until Mount Carmel responded. McCraw was called for a throw on a spike, which sparked a charge for the Lady Aces. Goldman followed that with a kill, followed by an ace by McPherson, forcing a Massac timeout. Massac Coach Zach Miller called the timeout a little bit late, just before McPherson was set to serve the next ball -- but Miller trademarked late substitutions and timeouts to keep Mount Carmel off balance.
Once again Massac looked as if they were set to run away with it, seizing a 21-17 lead after the brief Mount Carmel run, but the Lady Aces settled in and just played.
Drone recorded an ace, the Lady Aces picked up one of their many blocks on the night, Massac spiked a couple balls out and Goldman recorded a kill. Now, Mount Carmel had somehow emerged ahead 23-21 late, just two points off a second set victory.
Both teams just continued to trade blows down the stretch, including both teams pushing each other to the brink on a couple occasions, only to come away with a bad serve and missing on a key opportunity. Crowds for both sides did their best to energize their teams and push them past the finish line with their encouragement.
One specific play that stood out -- the score was 24-22, senior Kassidy Drone had just set it to Goldman, who spiked down a beautiful ball. A Patriot back row defender dug it up, but the ball went flying. Her return flew over the net and found its way just inside the back line of the Mount Carmel side, as the ball glanced so unpredictably that the Lady Aces hadn't expected it. Though there were a couple other opportunities, that particular point felt like a devastating blow.
Massac absorbed some of Mount Carmel's blows late and pieced together two straight kills for the final two points of the match, emerging victorious from a back and forth, highly contested second set and match.
Even in a loss you couldn't fault Mount Carmel's effort, as they were every bit an equal adversary to the Patriots. Some of the Lady Aces who stood out in particular, Goldman, who was on her game with quite a bit of velocity and nice placing on her spikes. McPherson, who had the hot hand spiking it in the second set. Kassidy Drone, who was just her usual steady self at setter, and York, who was a disruptive presence at the net with her blocking.
Afterwards it was an understandably emotional scene. Tears were plentiful, players and coaches alike, as their season reminisced before their eyes. The realization had sunk in that their season, and the careers of their five seniors had ended.
Despite falling short of their goal to win the Regional Championship, these five seniors, Kassidy Drone, Addie Drone, Jessica Wall, Madi Merritt and Goldman absolutely changed the culture of Mount Carmel volleyball, paving the way for future generations of Lady Aces to come through the revitalized program.
They may not realize it now, but that impact goes beyond any postseason championship.
"I told them in the locker room it's still something to be proud of," Beckerman spoke of her team. "The way we came back, the way we fought. We brought a name back to Mount Carmel volleyball, people noticed we had stuff going on this year.
"It is kind of the culmination of a lot of things and maybe we didn't get that goal of the Regional. Very emotional in the locker room, lots of tears, but also happy tears because I tell them after every game, I'm so proud of you. Even after this one, yeah it's a tough loss, but we played well, they're a good team, they've got some good girls. Just the improvements we made not only this season, but for the seniors in the past four seasons, just a huge difference in the way that they play. Obviously it's a tough loss but it's something to be proud of."
Now, Mount Carmel will look to carry on with what the five seniors instilled into the program, the winning culture, the poise and the class they carried themselves with.
When next August rolls around their junior class will be looked to by the underclassmen in the same capacity and who knows, maybe they'll be able to mend this heartbreak with postseason success of their own.
"Just another turnover of upperclassmen leadership will be a huge factor playing into next year. Those girls are obviously going to get bigger, faster and stronger. A couple of them are playing club ball again this offseason, so lots of positives moving forward."
MaC -- 25 29
MC -- 23 27