By the time the final whistle blew, Niki Small had handled here business as she always does.
CENTRAL POINT — By the time the final whistle blew, Niki Small had handled here business as she always does.
A 6-foot-1, Northern Arizona-bound senior, Small leads the Ashland volleyball team as one of the most explosive and exciting middle blockers in the state, proving big-time bounce and a right arm that comes off more like a slingshot when the ball leaves her hand.
But it became clear during the Grizzlies' 48th straight league win that if defenses are going to stop this year's state title run, they'll have more to contend with than just Small.
On Tuesday night, it was Crater playing the part of the Washington Generals to Ashland's Harlem Globetrotters-esque act, and while the Comets succeeded in making the match more interesting than a typical Southern Sky contest, senior outside hitters Hayley Ross and Hannah Stocking ensured that meant nothing less than another Grizzly sweep.
Ross had a match-high 11 kills, and Stocking and Small added 10 apiece to push Ashland to 4-0 in SSC play with a 25-17, 25-22, 25-17 road win over the team considered to be its best competition among league foes.
A very liberal use of the word "competition" is, once again, standard protocol for the Grizzlies until the playoffs begin, especially with Ross and Stocking managing their supporting roles like leading players.
"Those two really stepped it up tonight," Ashland coach Jodee Scott said. "All the teams know about (Small), they're gunning for her and they're going to put their biggest block on her. So we need contributions all over the floor, and right now we're getting them."
The Grizzlies started sluggishly in each of the first two games, thanks in part to a canceled practice the day before the match and a flu bug that's victimized a chunk of the school and a handful of players.
Tied 16-16 in the first game, Ashland claimed nine of the next 10 points as Ross finished off the run with a smash down the line after hooking up with setter Callie McCoy.
Crater then jumped out to a 13-10 lead in the second game after consecutive aces from Cassie Hall. Stocking and junior Samantha Boehnke brought the Grizzlies storming back, though, as the two accounted for nine of Ashland next 15 points with kills and Stocking — as impressive an athlete as Small but a few inches shorter — slid behind McCoy and demonstrated some pop down the sideline to cap game.
"I think we were all disappointed by the way we came out the first two games," Stocking said. "I felt like we were panicking a little bit because we haven't started that slow before, but we all picked it up and were able to stick it out."
Added Scott: "I'm proud of them for sticking it out and getting the win even though things never really seemed to click, and I think that showed a lot of character. It's hard to be perfect all the time, but they still did enough things right to get it done."
If things didn't click in the first two games, they seemed to in the third as the Grizzlies put an exclamation point on an otherwise slow night.
With the floor opened up by all the other Grizzly hitters, Small was able to go on the attack in Game 3. AHS raced out to an 8-2 lead behind a block and six quick kills from Small, as McCoy went to her early and often after spending much of the match establishing the rest of the Grizzlies' arsenal.
It's a formula Scott figures will need to be replicated if Ashland's run is to be deep into the state tournament.
"We can't be a team that relies on just one player to get us by, because we have too many pieces that make us dangerous," she explained. "The more people we can get to play with a sense of urgency, the better off we'll be."
McCoy led the match with 32 assists, while sophomore libero Piper Cantrell had 29 digs for the Grizzlies.