ANNAWAN — Wednesday night featured one of the Lincoln Trail Conference's marquee early-season volleyball matches, and it delivered as promised.
With Annawan and Mercer County both jousting for position atop the LTC standings, the clubs battled tooth and nail in splitting the first two sets.
But once the third set commenced, the Bravettes caught fire and never cooled down as they secured a 27-25, 21-25, 25-16 victory over the Golden Eagles to remain perfect in the LTC at 4-0.
"We knew MerCo would come in and play us tough," said Annawan coach Gina Peterson, whose club moves to 18-1 with its eighth straight win. "They're a great team, and we'd really have to work for this."
Down by as many as 10 points late in the second game, the Bravettes went on an 11-3 run to close the gap to 22-20 before the Golden Eagles (10-8, 3-2 LTC) scored three of the next four points to even the match.
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"I'm proud of all of my girls," said MerCo coach Erica Biddle. "Annawan is a good team, but we made them earn every point tonight."
However, that momentum re-lit Annawan's fuse once the third game started.
The duo of sophomore setter Bella VanOpdorp and junior outside hitter/setter Kaylee Celus combined for three kills as the hosts opened the final set on a 6-0 tear. VanOpdorp had five service points in that run.
"We knew we needed to come together and bring the energy up," said VanOpdorp (18 assists, four kills). "That was the big thing. We came together as a team, and we knew we could take the game. We had to adjust and figure out their game plan."
Celus had five of her team-high 13 kills in the third set and also notched three of her six aces during a subsequent 7-0 run in which she scored six points to put the hosts up 14-4. She also had seven assists and two blocks.
"We definitely had to go far and above, come together and get it done," Celus said. "Mercer County is definitely a good team, and we knew we'd have to fight to beat them. They're always tough and scrappy."
That scrappiness showed down the stretch when the Golden Eagles closed a 10-point gap down to six at 17-11 after back-to-back Leila Arias aces. However, Mercer County was unable to sustain a lengthy run to put greater pressure on Annawan.
It was not for a lack of effort on the part of the Eagles, and especially junior middle blocker Gabriella McPeek. She posted a match-high 16 kills to go with three blocks and two aces and formed a formidable duo with sophomore outside hitter Molly Hofmann (nine kills, six blocks).
"Both of them definitely did well," said Biddle. "They were triple-blocking Gabby, but she adjusted really well. Molly's really been stepping up; she's got great potential. We were able to utilize both of them well."
Keeping Celus in check was also a key part of the Eagles' game plan Wednesday night.
"She's definitely a great player for them," said Biddle, who also got 15 digs from Maddie Hofmann and Madi Frieden, with Brylee Marston adding 16 assists.
"Part of our game plan was to try and shut her down, and we were able to do it through most of the first and second games."
The opening game set the tone for the evening as neither team led by more than three points. Annawan had game point at 24-22, then MerCo battled back to lead 25-24 before the Bravettes took the set with a closing 3-0 spurt.
"We've been in similar situations before," said Peterson, who also got six kills from Ella Anderson. "We knew what we were capable of. We've faced a couple of big teams already, which prepared us for this."