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Claremore junior Claudia Nieto (8) tries to hit over a block attempt from a Piedmont player Monday during the Class 5A state quarterfinals at the Verdigris Activity Center. Nieto finished with a team-high 12 kills in the season-ending loss.

VERDIGRIS — Kim Mabbott was willing to try anything she could possibly do to increase her team’s chances of a block.

In this instance, that meant bringing in a freshman who could adequately combat and perhaps neutralize the height advantage Piedmont possessed. That player was none other than Claire Hardage.

Hardage already measures in at 6-foot-2, and though she competed on the JV team for a majority of the season, her presence was felt at the net.

Hardage — who wasn’t even listed on the Claremore roster in the official Oklahoma Secondary School Activities Association state tournament program sold at the event — entered late in the second set and notched a block and a kill, helping secure a two-point victory for the Lady Zebras. Her kill established set point for Claremore, which it reached moments later on an Elsa Rhodes ace.

The freshman’s contributions could only go so far, though, as the Lady Wildcats earned a 3-1 victory —25-18, 24-26, 25-14, 25-18 — in the Class 5A state quarterfinals Monday at the Verdigris Activity Center. The Lady Zebras finished the season with a 24-17 record while Piedmont (21-12) went on to be swept by Mount St. Mary in the semifinals.

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Claremore’s Claudia Nieto (8) and Claire Hardage, right, block Kaylie Marshall of Piedmont (22) during the Class 5A state quarterfinals Monday at the Verdigris Activity Center.

“I was trying to increase the block, honestly,” coach Mabbott said of her decision to insert Hardage, who finished with two blocks and two kills. “Something we struggled with all year was our block. We just had a hard time with our block; we struggled with that and getting it closed, getting it sealed. One of our seniors wasn’t able to come today because of a college trip, so I was like, ‘Let me move her (Hardage)’, and she did a great job. For being a freshman, it being her first time in and coming in at State, that’s a heavy, heavy thing to do. She performed very well for us, and like I said, we were just trying to get that block.

“At one point in the second set, we shut down No. 22 (Kaylie Marshall), which was their heavy hitter, and they had to start tipping over the block because they kept hitting into it.”

Marshall, 5-10, proved to be a problem for Claremore early on, tallying seven kills in the first set. She finished with 15 kills and a block in all, but after Hardage entered the match, the most points she scored in any set was four.

Elsewhere, Chesnie Caudill and JoAnna Hunter combined for 14 kills and four aces.

However, Macy Lee and Ella Watkins were the heroes of the fourth set for Piedmont.

The Lady Zebras built an early 4-2 lead, but the Lady Wildcats responded with an 8-0 run that included a kill and a block from Lee to give them a 10-4 advantage.

Then, after Claremore rallied to within two at 11-9, Lee served three-consecutive aces while Watkins managed a block.

The Lady Zebras could never recover from that spurt, and Watkins went on to get three more kills — including the match-winner — to send Piedmont to the semifinals.

“They played deep on us, and we have a hard time crossing,” Mabbott said. “They exposed our weaknesses. They did exactly what I expected them to do. I tried to get them ready as best I could, but I could only do so much.”

Claudia Nieto led Claremore with 12 kills and two blocks while Ella Irvin added nine kills, a block and an ace. Kinley Williams managed six kills and a block.

Unfortunately for the Lady Zebras, two of those three players will be gone next year. Nieto, a foreign-exchange student from Spain, will return to her native country, and Williams graduates in May. They will also lose libero Becca Hilmes, defensive specialist Makyla Salcido and rightside hitter Keilee Gill to graduation.

Despite those hefty losses, Mabbott said Claremore has a good chance to return to the state tournament with players like Irvin, Hardage, Ella Ramsey, Abby Dake and Abbey LeForte coming back.

“We have a pretty solid base for a team next year,” Mabbott said. “We’re going to move some kids up from JV and should be pretty good.”

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