The Paonia High School volleyball team responded to its biggest test of the season so far with a come-from-behind victory and maintained its No. 1 ranking in 2A.
West Grand came into the Paonia gym last Friday and gave the Eagles a stiff challenge, winning the first set and taking huge leads in the second set before Paonia rallied to win the match 3-1.
"We knew it was going to be tough," Paonia coach Krista Carsten said. "They didn't lose anyone to graduation and they're a well-coached team. We knew it was going to be a battle."
The Mustangs made a statement in their 25-23 opening set win. Often running an all-senior lineup, West Grand showed tenacity at the net and covered the floor well on defense.
"To drop set one, that's okay," Carsten said. "And we were down 10-4 in set two but battled back."
The Eagles trailed the second set 4-10 and 10-17 before the big rally. McKenna Hartigan, Brianna Van Vleet and McKenna Palmer all had kills in a key run to bring the Eagles deficit to 13-17.
Then Palmer's kill and an ace from Emily Pieper put the Eagles ahead 21-19.
Carsten praised the leadership skills from Hartigan and Pieper after the match.
"Our two captains did an incredible job," Carsten said. "Hartigan was unstoppable at the net and Pieper ran the floor like a true veteran. I was so pleased with both of them. And as a team we blocked incredibly well."
Hartigan had a match-high 15 kills and Pieper directed the offensive attack with 33 assists. Palmer had a huge night statistically and Van Vleet finished with eight kills for the winners.
Randi Rapke, Sophie Anderson, Palmer and McKenna Johnson all finished with 100 percent serving ratings in the win for Paonia.
"We talked a little bit about giving up big strings of points, and we can't do that particularly against good teams," Carsten said. "Unforced errors during those crucial times kind of hurt us.
"When we started working our way back into that second set West Grand's points were all service errors," Carsten added. "You can't do that against a good team. We know the next time we see them it will definitely be a battle."
Paonia took the second set 25-22, then finished off the scrappy Mustangs 25-20 and 25-19 in sets three and four.
"I think all of our hitters started playing with a little bit more confidence," Carsten said. "I think all the girls played harder and just started swinging."
The other two match wins for Paonia last week also came at home and were a little more routine. Paonia swept Gunnison 25-14, 25-13 and 25-21 on Sept. 13.
Hartigan led the Eagles to that win with 10 kills and 12 digs. Anderson had four blocks, Palmer banged home 12 kills, Van Vleet served up four aces and Pieper contributed 28 assists in the win.
The Eagles completed the perfect week with a 3-0 win over North Park on Sept. 17.
Hartigan continued her dominant play with 12 kills and nine aces in the win. Palmer banged home eight kills and had four blocks for the Eagles while Pieper tallied 21 more assists to complete the sweep.
Paonia is at Grand Junction tomorrow night and plays at home against Vail Mountain at 6 p.m. on Friday night. Then they'll travel to play Vail Christian on Sept. 27.