Eastland pulls away late, sweeps Earlville in two

Cougars are keeping up tradition

Eastland's Sage Walrath (right) hits the ball past Earlville's Kelsey Chapman during the first set of Thursday's 1A regional championship game in Ashton.
Eastland's Sage Walrath (right) hits the ball past Earlville's Kelsey Chapman during the first set of Thursday's 1A regional championship game in Ashton.

ASHTON – Erica Dambman has heard enough of the doubts of her Eastland Cougars volleyball team’s success.

The senior has seen her team win regional titles in each of the past 3 years she’s been in high school – on top of a state championship her freshman year and a second-place finish when she was a sophomore.

At the 1A AFC Regional final against Earlville, Dambman and the rest of her Cougars proved that there are no letups in success after good years, but rather successful reloads after downing the Red Raiders 25-16, 25-21 for the program’s fifth straight regional title.

“It feels amazing,” said Dambman, one of the team’s two go-to setters along with junior Erin Henze. “We’ve worked hard every single year since we started. Everybody’s had their speculations about us because we lose good seniors every year, and are like, ‘You’re not going to be as good.’ So winning it every single year for as long as I’ve been in high school has been awesome, and I’m really proud of these girls.”

The match wasn’t easy for the Cougars (24-12-1), who saw the Red Raiders (22-9) fail to buckle both times the 20-point mark was reached.

Aces for points No. 20 in the first set and No. 21 in the second set seemed to give the Cougars enough energy to ride away with late-set momentum. However, the Red Raiders battled to score five more points in both sets after those specific aces to try to keep the Cougars at bay. Earlville was within 23-21 in the second set before a pair of hitting errors ended the match.

The Cougars never trailed in the first set, and earned their first five-point lead after an Addison Burkholder ace made it 11-6. Aces by Gabby Snyder (16-9) and Erica Dambman (20-11) led to Red Raiders timeouts on both occasions. Eastland hitting errors prevent them from running away, but Karlie Krogman ended the first set with her third kill.

More Cougars hitting errors gave the Red Raiders their first lead, which was as high as 4-2 before a pair of errors on the other end tied it at 4. Jadyn Pickert’s ace gave the Red Raiders a 9-8 lead, but a Meredith Janssen kill down the far sideline – and barely inbounds – and a Dambman over kill gave the Cougars a lead once more.

The second set remained tight with ties at 15 and 16. However, a flurry of Red Raiders errors sent the momentum back to the Cougars, who increased their lead to 21-16 after Burkholder’s second ace.

Burkholder’s next serve went long, but teammate Sage Walrath put down back-to-back kills from the left corner for a 23-17 advantage. Four straight attack errors closed the gap to 23-21 before the Cougars called a timeout. Match point was earned after Kelsey Chapman’s overkill sailed out of bounds, and a double-hit ended it all.

Dambman finished with 12 digs and 10 assists for Eastland. Walrath led the Cougars with nine kills, and Krogman finished with eight kills after leading her team with 10 in an Oct. 23 semifinal; when the Cougars took just 29 minutes to beat Leland 25-7, 25-2.

“Our defense was solid,” said Snyder, who added eight digs. “We worked together well. We were just so ready to play, worked hard, and it showed.”

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