Time was running out in the first set of East Surry’s first-round volleyball playoff match against North Stanly, and coach Caleb Gilley didn’t like what he was seeing one bit.
His Cardinals were struggling to handle the serve of the Comets’ Leah Russell and getting beaten at the net by Nyjah McLendon even when they did return serve. The defending West Regional champions looked like they had the set won a few minutes earlier, serving with a 22-17 lead, but had surrendered six straight points and all of the momentum.
Gilley called time-out, and calmly but sternly told his team that they weren’t doing the things they needed to in order to win.
“We just talked about controlling first contact and staying in system,” he said. “We weren’t doing those things on their run.”
The team took their coach’s message to heart, won three straight points to take the set, and then rolled to a 25-23, 25-11, 25-18 victory that sent the Cardinals to their fifth consecutive victory and into the second round. East Surry, now 17-10 on the season, will visit fourth-seeded Hiwassee Dam (14-2) in Tuesday’s second round.
Following the critical time-out, the Cardinals, who have taken their game to a higher level since dropping two matches in the Rivals United Dig Pink showcase two weeks ago, went into overdrive. East Surry won 37 of the next 50 points, and four of the points that North Stanly (13-11) won were on service errors by the Cardinals. By the time that the Comets weathered the red tide, the match was into a third set and East Surry led 9-2.
North Stanly, the third-place team out of the Uwharrie Athletic 1-A, began to trade points with the Cardinals and looked for a way to rally, but East’s Sarah Marion and Sydney Marion weren’t having any of that. With the Comets holding serve down 13-8, Sarah Marion put a kill away to win back possession and a service opportunity for herself, then promptly served an ace and sent her team off on another run. At 18-8, Sydney Marion put one away to force North Stanly into a desperation time-out.
The Comets then mounted one final, last-ditch rally, running off four points in a row of their own. Gilley called time himself, just to give his team a chance to regain their bearings; he didn’t say much this time around. With North Stanly serving at 20-14, a long rally ensued in which the Cardinals’ Sydney Marion and Cameron Sloop contested McLendon and Alexa Sells twice in a matter of a few seconds. Marion, who had winners on a variety of creative shots throughout the evening, lightly dinked the ball over the net instead of trying to power her way past the Comets’ front line. Their defense wasn’t prepared for that type of shot, and East Surry had the winner. Then McLendon put a kill attempt into the net, and the Cardinals were three points away from victory.
The last three points of the match were the Kendall Beck show. East’s junior middle hitter served an ace that barely cleared the net, then won the final two points on hard-hit balls that went off the fingertips of North Stanly defenders before hitting the court.
The first set saw the teams feeling each other out. The Comets had some early trouble handling the serve of junior libero Bryce Smith, but settled down and eventually pulled even. Trailing 16-15, the Cardinals ran off four straight points and pushed their lead to five, at 22-17, when Bethany Clayton set up Sloop on a thunderous spike that appeared to have given her team control. Then came the breakdown that prompted Gilley’s crucial time-out.
Set two was a tour de force by the Cardinals. Clayton was masterful on her sets, and both Marions, Sloop, and Beck took advantage of every chance they got. The set was so one-sided that North Stanly elected to call time-out just once before conceding it to East Surry.
Reach John on Twitter at @johncate73.