FEELS LIKE VICTORY: Southwestern’s Katie Conover (7) reacts in jubilation while celebrating with teammates (from right)  Brittany Ralston, Sarah Anderson and Karli Long after the Rebels scored to bring about match point of a 3-2 sectional win over Milan Thursday in Hanover. Ralston attacks at the net (below). (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
FEELS LIKE VICTORY: Southwestern’s Katie Conover (7) reacts in jubilation while celebrating with teammates (from right) Brittany Ralston, Sarah Anderson and Karli Long after the Rebels scored to bring about match point of a 3-2 sectional win over Milan Thursday in Hanover. Ralston attacks at the net (below). (Staff photos by Mark Campbell)
Whether it was tournament jitters, the pressure of defending its home court or just a bad night at the sectional, Southwestern was pushed to a fifth-set tie-breaker before surviving a four-win Milan team on the opening round of the Class 2A Volleyball Sectional 45 Thursday night in Vevay.

The Rebels (18-14) dropped the first set 25-20, rebounded to win sets two and three 25-8, 25-16, then saw a scrappy Milan squad hang on 26-24 in set four before closing out the win 15-10 in the tie-breaker.

It was far from the way Southwestern coach Chris Johnson hoped for - actually expected - his team to begin defense of their sectional championship from a year earlier.

"Conference opponents know each other so well that it comes down to execution and we didn't execute very well for a lot of the match and particularly in the first and fourth sets that we lost," Johnson said of his Ohio River Valley Conference rivals. "I just didn't think we played very well."

Milan, 4-26, looked to be no match for the Lady Rebels on paper but the determined Indians made up for that with effort. Combine that with an off night by Southwestern and Milan had the defending tourney champs teetering on elimination in the opening round n on the home floor.

"I thought they played better than they typically play. Their record's not very good this year but they didn't play like a team that only won four or five games," Johnson said of the Indians. "I thought they played a lot better. They were scrappy, they didn't allow things to hit the floor, they kept the ball alive and they kept pressure on us to beat them and we had trouble with that.

"We had trouble finishing it off. Credit to them for being scrappy and for doing a good job. I think their hustle generated good plays," Johnson added. "They had a lot of plays where I just sat back and said 'Are you kidding me? That came back over the net?' but credit to their players. They stayed after the ball and they wanted to win that game and you could tell."

But in the end the Rebels got a career night from senior libero Katie Conover and surprisingly clutch play from freshmen Megan and Brittany Ralston and Kelsi Brierly to go with some clutch hitting by senior Karli Long and others to close out just enough games to survive.

"Katie Conover, our libero, had one of the best games she's had all season," Johnson said. "She dug a whole lot of balls and she was always in the right place and anticipating what they were doing. She ended up with 27 digs.

"And I really thought our young girls kept us in it," Johnson added. "Megan Ralston had an absolute amazing first and second set and she's not somebody we've leaned on a whole lot this season and we had to lean on her today because both of our outside hitters were struggling. We kicked the ball to her in the middle several times early on and she scored on every single one of them so we just kept going to her and she kept finding ways to score."

And while Southwestern's outside hitters struggled at times, they never stopped attacking and when clutch time arrived more times than not they made the plays Southwestern needed to get over the hump.

"Karli Long, our outside hitter came off of a slow start. She banged her first three or four balls right into the net but towards the end when we needed somebody to finish off points and finish off sets she stepped up and started to hit the ball hard," Johnson said.

Johnson said it was Southwestern's dedication to continue attacking even when the Rebels' execution was lacking that ultimately secured the win in the tie-breaker.

"I think the thing that kind of helped us out in the fifth set to finish it is our hitters stayed aggressive," Johnson said. "We've had problems with that from time to time and sometimes when things get tight we get a little timid and we don't play well when we're timid. And I didn't think that happened tonight.

"But Mariah Franklin in the middle and Brittany Ralston in the middle were swinging hard and trying to put the ball away every time," Johnson added. "Karli was hitting the ball hard and Skyla (Judkins) was hitting the ball hard on the outside so we had all four of our major hitters hitting the ball hard there at the end. I think that was probably the thing that let us win it because if we had played timid I don't think we would have won that fifth set."

Long ended the night with 21 kills on 49 attempts with three aces on 22 for 22 serving, and six digs. Meanwhile, Meagan Ralston had 9 kills on 20 attempts with one block and Brittney Ralston had eight kills on 23 for 23 hitting with two aces on 12 for 13 serving and a block.

Judkins had 13 kills on 47 attempts and seven digs while Conover had four aces on 14 for 15 serving to go with the 27 defensive digs. Mariah Franklin had 10 kills on 25 attempts and Sarah Anderson was 17 for 17 serving and added 53 assists and six digs.

Those are all good numbers but statistics that would have counted for nothing if the Rebels hadn't pulled out the close win. It was a scare that kept Johnson lingering in the lockerroom long after the game to make sure his players understood the bullet they had just dodged.

"One thing we did in there is I had some of the seniors talk to the other girls. We were pretty darn close to their season being over there and I wanted them to express their feelings about what they thought about that situation," Johnson said. "They said some good things. They said they were obviously fearful of it but it caused them to elevate their game and I think you saw some of that."

The Rebels now play Switzerland County, a 3-1 winner over South Ripley in Thursday's second quarterfinal matchup, at 11 a.m. on Saturday in the sectional semifinals. Johnson hopes the Rebels will be more focused for that match and their first defense of a sectional championship on their home floor.

"The one positive you can point to is if we were jittery or if we were nervous about things we got it out of our system, hopefully, tonight," he said. "I'm super excited about hosting the sectional. This is the first time the school has hosted it for volleyball so I'm excited by that but I do think it adds a little bit of extra pressure. You want to look good on your home floor and you don't want to go out in the first round on your home floor."