TOWANDA – The Circle Volleyball Team had the benefit of being able to play for a berth in the Class 4A State Tournament on their home court. The drawback was, of the five teams competing, one was the AVCTL-III champion and the second ranked team in 4A, the McPherson Bullpups.
Ultimately, it was McPherson claiming the Circle Substate Tournament championship, with a pair of decisive victories over Rose Hill in the semifinals and Circle in the title match.
For the T-Birds though, they had to battle through a hard-fought match in their semifinal in order to advance. Circle was matched up against the Augusta Orioles. Back in a season-opening triangular in El Dorado, Augusta had taken the T-Birds to three sets before Circle emerged victorious. Coach Shelly Nibarger knew her team would have to give everything they had to get past the Orioles again.
Circle led 13-9 in the opening set and then Augusta fought back to go ahead 21-17. The teams traded points the rest of the way and the Orioles took the set 25-21.
Augusta used the momentum to jump to a quick 4-1 lead in Set 2. Circle then went on a run to lead 10-7 and the Orioles took a timeout. From that point on, the T-Birds could not really pull away but all the while, Augusta was not able to regain the lead. Laci Beougher finished the set with a kill and Circle took it 25-20.
In the winner-take-all third set, the teams traded the first four points and then the Orioles went on a 6-0 spurt to lead 8-2. They maintained the spread of six up to 13-7.
Circle needed something to change. And boy, did it.
After on Oriole serving error made it 13-8, Circle freshman Reagan Smith had her turn to serve. She spread the ball around and Augusta quickly got out of rhythm.
"Reagan was hitting her zones, just trying to mix it up and keep them offguard," Nibarger said.
The T-Birds reeled off a 10-0 run to lead 17-13. Augusta got it to 17-15, then Circle pulled away for a 25-18 win, taking the match 2-1. They scored 18 of the final 24 points of the match to keep their season alive for a little bit longer.
"I would like to give credit to Augusta, (Head Coach) Brian (Hallmark) has them playing well," Nibarger said. "His girls are technically sound, his hitters all have the same approach. I have a lot of respect for his program, and I knew he’d come in here ready to bring it on."
Augusta finished their season at 13-13 overall. Meanwhile the T-Birds moved on to face McPherson. The Bullpups got to the final after eliminating Rose Hill 2-0 (25-16, 25-10). Earlier in the day, Rose Hill won the play-in match over El Dorado 2-0 (25-19, 25-17).
Early on, Circle rode the high of their win over the Orioles by fending off the high-powered Bullpup attack and taking a 4-2 lead. But soon, the talent and skill of McPherson became a factor. They went on a 7-0 run to take a 9-4 lead. Circle came back with four in a row, but they could not go back in front. The Bullpups dominated the rest of the set to win 25-12.
"At one point in the first set, we had made seven hitting errors," Nibarger said. "If you want to beat Mac, you cannot make unforced errors. Gradually, they just keep creeping away and you’re not going to come back on them."
It was more of the same in the second set. The Bullpups started quickly, building a 7-2 lead. Circle got within 8-6 but that was as close as they got as McPherson once again pulled away, taking the set 25-14 and capturing the sub-state championship.
"They’re a phenomenal team just coming down from 5A," Nibarger said. "They were on a mission."
The T-Birds finished a rather tumultuous 2020 season with a record of 15-11. They battled injuries and had to quarantine due to COVID-19 which resulted in them going without playing a match over an 18-day period.
"Things were looking kind of bleak even for high school sports to even have their fall seasons," Nibarger said. "So, we’re very thankful we got to compete this year and play any matches at all."