Forest Park's volleyball team saw one of its preseason goals disappear early in Friday's Cardinal District match against Hylton. The Bruins dropped the second game -- the first game they had lost to an area opponent all year. But in the next two games, Jessica O'Neal and her teammates made sure that the rest of the Bruins' season goals would remain on track.
Sparked by O'Neal's strong all-around play in the final two games, No. 6 Forest Park pulled away for a 15-6, 9-15, 15-9, 15-6 home victory in a rematch of last year's Northwestern Region championship. With the win, the Bruins improved to 17-0 (5-0 in the Cardinal) and clinched the top seed in this week's district tournament, taking place Wednesday and Friday at Woodbridge.
"We just looked at [the second game] as another game played, and just went out and finished the match," said O'Neal, who finished with 12 kills, including six in the pivotal third game. "Any team can win on any given day, and you can never forget that."
O'Neal, who is in her first full season on varsity, made sure that Forest Park would be the winner Friday. The six-footer usually plays exclusively on the front row, but scrappy play by Hylton (8-7, 2-3) extended Friday's games, draining Forest Park's allotted substitutions and forcing Coach Dan Jones to use O'Neal on the back row. The senior responded, serving seven points in the final two games and keying Forest Park's attack.
"The big question coming into the season was would her offensive game catch up to her defensive game," Jones said, "and it's closing in rapidly."
Junior outside Marisa Gross also provided a steady stream of screaming blasts for Forest Park, finishing with a game-high 24 kills. Of the 11 Bruins who played Friday, nine recorded at least one kill.
But a young Hylton team managed to neutralize Forest Park's weapons with a series of impressive digs. The Bulldogs were missing one of their top weapons -- senior hitter Jasmine Byrd, who was on a basketball recruiting trip to Appalachian State. But they compensated with scrambling defense, featuring several brilliant saves by sophomore Alex Roderick and senior Jenna Williams.
"An incredible performance by Hylton defensively, as far as I'm concerned," Jones said.
Despite the loss, Hylton senior setter Kelli Wilson said that Friday's match could provide the Bulldogs with increased confidence heading into the postseason.
"Beating Forest Park in one game just gave us that extra 'oomph' we needed," said Wilson, who led Hylton with 15 assists. "We proved to them that we can battle."
Both teams also proved that the nearly two-week interruption caused by the sniper shootings would not thwart their seasons. Hylton's players did cardiovascular drills on their own during the break, and the Bruins organized player-only practices at a local gym.
Both teams canceled two nondistrict matches, but last week's resumption of play will allow the district and regional playoffs to be played in their entirety.
The players, meanwhile, were relieved just to be on the court.
"I love being active and staying fit," said Forest Park senior Ali Krieger, who had 24 assists and eight kills Friday. "It feels so much better than just sitting at home and being scared."