TALLMADGE — When she grabbed the ball, Sydney Kirker couldn’t help but feel a sense of anxiety as she took her place behind the service line.
You could argue that it was the equivalent of standing next to a "Hornets" nest.
"It was a lot of adrenaline going through me," the senior outside hitter said. "Serving is something I normally struggle with, so getting the ball when it was very close to the end was very stressful for me."
The timing couldn’t have been more critical. That’s because the somewhat discombobulated Tallmadge volleyball team found itself trailing a formidable conference rival by a fairly sizable margin in the third set.
Thus, Kirker had no other choice but to confront her demons so the Blue Devils could finish off a pivotal win on their home floor.
Fortunately for Tallmadge, its unflappable senior turned her apprehension to almost zen-like serenity.
As a result, the Blue Devils kept their slim Suburban League American Conference title hopes alive.
Thanks to Kirker’s clutch serving down the stretch, Tallmadge earned a hard-fought 25-19, 25-22, 25-20 victory over Highland Monday at James O. Maddox Court.
Down 19-15, the Blue Devils (14-5, 7-4) scored nine straight points to stun the Hornets, who appeared to discover a chink in Tallmadge’s once impregnable armor.
Eight of those points came off the low, line-drive serves of Kirker, who had a knack for zipping her fastballs mere millimeters over the net before they darted to the floor and practically out of reach from her shell-shocked opponents.
"She did a great job on that serve," Blue Devils’ first-year head coach Jim Maloof said. "She was hitting her zones."
Kirker’s lethal serve didn’t finish the match, but the Hornets eventually committed a hitting error on Tallmadge’s second match point.
Therefore, the Blue Devils faced this rather blunt situation when it came to the championship puzzle. They needed a win against Barberton Tuesday on the road and losses from both Highland and Revere if they wanted a piece of the conference title.
One way or another, Tallmadge, which recently received the fifth seed at its own Division II sectional-district tournament, proved it will be a daunting opponent for anyone when the postseason arrives.
"The last set, we really pushed hard and dug ourselves out of a really big hole," Kirker said. "I’m really proud of the team for that."
Kirker produced all eight of her service points down the stretch. Two of those crucial serves resulted in aces.
Kirker also had a team-high 11 kills, 10 digs and a block against a Hornets’ squad that defeated the Blue Devils in four sets last month in Granger Township.
"That was one of the most enthusiastic games we played in the first set," Kirker said. "Normally, we start out slower and then pick it up. This time, it was kind of the opposite. In the third set, we struggled a little more than we usually do."
Kirker found her rhythm early, thanks to a young lady who looks eerily similar to her in a number of ways. Kirker smashed a number of well-placed passes by her younger sister, Ellie, a sophomore setter who has been a mainstay in the varsity lineup ever since she enrolled at Tallmadge High School.
"I’ve been playing with my sister since I was 12 and she was 10," Kirker said. "When she became a freshman and I was a junior, it was really nice that we were on a set team for at least two years.
"It’s just really good to play with her because I’ve had that connection with her for a couple years now. It makes it a lot easier when you have that connection for more than a season."
Maloof has certainly developed quite a connection with his fun-loving, front-row rocket launcher in a very short time span.
The elder Kirker is not the type of person who keeps her emotions locked in her attic. Such a powerful personality is a major reason why Maloof has become quite fond of his fidgety senior.
"She’s awesome," Maloof said of Kirker. "I love that kid to death. I love all my seniors to death. She brings a lot of passion; she brings a lot of energy; and she brings a lot of athleticism. On top of that, she has the skill to do what needs to be done.
"I challenge the kids and I challenge her in particular with new things to do and she has stepped up."
Due to its modest seed, Kirker and Co. will have a difficult road if it wants to reach regional play for the first time since 2012.
If Tallmadge wants to make a triumphant return to the Sweet Sixteen, it will most likely run into an old friend.
That would be the Minutemen, who have defeated the Blue Devils five times since the start of the 2018 season.
"We’ve been working hard in practices," Kirker said. "Our biggest rival right now is Revere. Highland is actually our second biggest competition. Beating them is a big momentum boost going to districts. I hope that will help us in the end."
Reporter Frank Aceto can be reached at 330-541-9444, firstname.lastname@example.org or @FrankAceto_RPC.