The stakes are higher every time the East Surry Cardinals and Mount Airy Granite Bears face off. No matter the sport, season, or record, these rivals go all out. Traditionally the winner of this match-up receives bragging rights until the next meeting.
However, the Cards and Bears met on the volleyball court for a third time this season with much higher stakes; as the Northwest 1A Conference tournament championship was on the line.
East Surry won the previous two meetings between the teams this season, sweeping the Bears on both occasions. Wednesday night’s contest proved no different. This is just over a week removed from the Cardinals defeating the Bears to clinch the regular season title. The title win gives East Surry its fifth consecutive tournament championship.
Each set got closer and closer, but East Surry pulled away in the end. Coach Caleb Gilley gave props to the Bears and stated how much of a roadblock they were.
“It’s always good to get a win over a really good program and a really good team,” Gilley said. “Mount Airy has come a long way this year. Chuck [Morris] has done an outstanding job with them and I think they still have it in them to make a run in the state playoffs.”
Despite the scoreboard reading 3-0 at the end of the match, each set saw both teams fighting for the advantage. The first set started close and got out of hand toward the end. The teams traded serves and never let the other gain more than a two-point lead. Bethany Clayton of East Surry and Hannah Williams of Mount Airy must have been wearing their moon shoes, because the two traded spikes from the stratosphere.
The match featured excellent net play both offensively and defensively. In addition to leading the team with an incredible 46 attacks, Clayton added three blocks to her resume. Maddie Payne lead the Cards with five total blocks. On the Mount Airy side, Arry Ward and Madeline Mayfield looked to contain Clayton’s attacks.
East Surry (24-2) had the first run of the match by winning four straight points to go up 12-8. Having tasted blood in the water, the Cardinals stayed on the attack. Allie Bruner had a kill-ace sequence that gave East the momentum, up 15-9. Two timeouts weren’t enough to hinder the Cards. East Surry pulled away and Jessica Clayton served the Cards to a 25-15 victory.
The second set saw more strategic play by the Bears. Mount Airy sent the ball to the back corners of the court, so even if the Cards hustled to retrieve it, they wouldn’t be able to set up a good attack. Errors from East gave the Bears a 4-1 lead, their largest of the night. Sarah Marion, who finished with 17 attacks, got her team back on track and eventually back on top. The Cards built a lead in another mid-set surge that put them up 16-10.
At 22-16, it appeared East Surry would run away with set two. Then Williams and the Bears’ outside hitters found new life and brought Mount Airy (13-12) within two points. Gilley let his team regroup on its own. Bruner ended the Bears’ run with a kill, putting the Cards two points away from victory in the second set. Long rallies would ensue on the final possessions of the set. They could have gone either way, but it was the Cardinals who pulled away with a 25-20 victory.
Bethany Clayton was all over the court to begin the third set. She would send spikes hurling at Mount Airy players, but would also retreat for digs. Despite this, the Bears stayed in the fight. Neither team gained an advantage greater than three points until East Surry led 17-13.
Back-and-forth action gave fans a show with powerful spikes and resourceful blocks to keep the rally alive. Ward and Williams were a brick wall for Mount Airy, suppressing the spikes from Bethany Clayton and Bruner as best they could. Both teams were gaining their points at the net, rotating between offensive and defensive victories.
The teams traded points once again until the scoreboard read 22-21 in favor of the Cardinals. East Surry had the last laugh by scoring three straight to cap off an incredible match for the Conference Championship.
“It feels good for my kids,” Gilley said. “It’s good to see them celebrating and seeing all their hard work [pay off].”
The Northwest 1A Conference all tournament team featured five players that competed in the championship match; Mount Airy’s Hannah Williams and Arry Ward and East Surry’s Morgan Smith, Allie Bruner, and Bethany Clayton, the latter of whom was named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
East Surry continued to rack up accolades when Caleb Gilley was named Conference Coach of the Year. The humble Gilley said that his players’ willingness to work is what earned him this award.
“You don’t win coach of the year if you don’t have good players,” Gilley said. “I have good players that work hard every day in practice. They spend time in the off-season working with me, so it makes my job really easy.”
Whether celebrating or sulking, both team’s will have an eye on the state playoff bracket in hopes of competing for an even bigger prize in the state championship.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith