CLEVELAND, Tenn. – Ooltewah’s Courtlyn Ison was in midseason form Tuesday night.
And Cleveland’s Lady Blue Raiders had no answer for the Lady Owls’ potent offensive threat.
Ison, who led Ooltewah to district, region and sub-state titles en route to the 2013 Class AAA state tournament, overpowered Cleveland with a dominating net game and the Lady Owls opened their season with a 25-19, 25-17, 25-16 District 5-AAA volleyball victory at Cleveland High School.
Ison, who plans to play college volleyball at Belmont University in Nashville, was the district’s co-player of the year and MVP for district and region tournaments last season and the 6-foot-1-inch Ison picked right up where she left off with 18 kills, seven digs and one ace.
“Thank goodness Courtlyn is a senior,” Cleveland coach Patricia Flowers said. “Ooltewah is a very good team. I wish they would graduate some of those girls.”
While none of the games were blowouts, Ooltewah (1-0, 1-0 district) never trailed in the three-set match. The Lady Owls got off to a 12-2 lead in the opening set, enjoyed a start in the second and zipped into a 10-3 lead to start the third.
The young Lady Blue Raiders, who have one senior, two juniors, six sophomores and one freshman on their roster, managed to hang with the Lady Owls after the rough starts in each game, but Ooltewah always had an answer.
More often than not, it was Ison.
“I played really well,” she said. “Over the weekend and in some practices I’ve had my own problems, but I’ve tried to work on hustling and being a captain on the team. We’ve got some young players and they sometimes drop their heads. I want to help them out.”
Ison recorded eight kills in the first set, including the game’s first point and the game-winner that followed three straight misplays by teammates.
And when Ison wasn’t hammering home points with laser-like thunderbolts all over the court, she crossed up Cleveland’s defense with soft, perfectly placed tips and taps at the net that consistently found open space on the court.
“Courtlyn has improved a lot since last year,” Ooltewah coach Elaine Peigen said. “She passes the ball well now, but she’s always our go-to person when we need a kill. She’s really smart with the ball.”
Ison was more concerned with the win than her stats.
“It’s awesome to win our first game,” she said. “We knew we could be good, but we still have a lot of work to do. We’re starting off with a win and that’s a good feeling.
“We have had some ups and downs in scrimmages, but we knew a lot about Cleveland’s defense. We worked well as a team, came out strong and felt like we’d do pretty well. I think we did better than we expected.”
Ison got a huge assist – literally – from junior setter Hanna Matthews throughout the match.
Matthews finished with 30 assists and made several of Ison’s kills simply formalities.
“I think Hanna is a special athlete with a great attitude, leadership ability and determination,” Peigen said. “The enthusiasm she brings to the game makes a difference. She was our setter last year and she’s a junior now and her best volleyball is probably yet to come.”
Matthews also had five digs and two blocks.
“It’s encouraging knowing we can come out with a bang like this to start the season,” Matthews said. “All my teammates were there for me throughout the math. I got a couple of blocks, which is always exciting because I’m a setter.”
One of Matthews’ blocks gave the Lady Owls a 20-9 lead in the first set and Ison had two kills and a tip down the stretch to nail down the win.
In the second set, Ooltewah had a 23-12 lead after Cleveland’s Allison Botts netted a return shot, but Amber Morman blocked the Lady Owls’ Allie Jones at the net for a point and freshman Emma Flowers, the coach’s daughter, drove a kill just inside the back line and the Lady Blue Raiders were within 24-17.
Alex Brio’s kill was the set-winning point.
In the third set, Hannah Henderson put away a point at the net and Ison had back-to-back tips to spark Ooltewah’s 4-1 start. Morman, one of the six sophomores on the floor for Cleveland, was long with a kill and couldn’t make a return while trying to avoid a teammate on the floor and the Lady Owls were up 6-2.
Cleveland (0-1, 0-1) trimmed the lead to 13-11, but Biro had a kill and Flowers’ shot sailed long and Ooltewah had a 15-11 cushion. The Lady Blue Raiders was within 18-15 after an unforced error by the Lady Owls, who then scored four straight points for a 22-15 advantage.
Senior Maddie Milliken’s tap capped the Ooltewah surge.
Back-to-back shots into the net by Lauren Lee and Flowers set up Ison to score the final point and end the match.
“We can gain a lot of confidence with this opening win,” Ison said, “especially since it’s a district game. That’s the most important thing about our win. It might set the tone for the rest of the season.”
Peigen, while pleased with the victory, said there’s plenty of room for improvement for her Lady Owls.
“It was a good win,” she said, “and our serve-reception looked better than in our play last weekend. While we’re happy to win, it’s going to be a tough district again. We’ll have to make adjustments as we go along.”
The Lady Owls take on district rival East Hamilton on Thursday. The Lady Hurricanes opened district play Tuesday with a win over Soddy-Daisy.
Flowers is looking for steady progress from her young squad and hopes the Lady Blue Raiders can be a factor by tournament time.
“We weren’t nervous today,” she said. “Ooltewah was more aggressive and they pound the ball. When they make mistakes it’s because they hit the ball so hard. But we hung in there with them and I think we’ll surprise some people when it matters the most.
“We tend to peak at the end of the season.”
Courtlyn Ison – 18 kills, 7 digs, 1 ace
Alex Biro – 6 kills
Hanna Matthews – 30 assists, 5 digs, 2 blocks
Josie Cain – 14 digs, 2 kills, 2 aces, 1 assist
Allie Jones – 2 kills
Kailin Higgins – 7 digs, 1 ace
Emily Grace Thompson – 3 digs, 1 kill
Summer Williams – 9 digs, 1 ace
Hannah Henderson – 1 kill
Alexis Godsey – 3 digs
Sidney Killingsworth – 3 kills, 1 block
Maddie Milliken – 1 block
(E-mail Larry Fleming at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter @larryfleming44)