During preseason, East Surry head coach Caleb Gilley said that his team was young in a lot of areas, and that he was still trying to figure out what he had.
He also said that Lady Cardinal volleyball goes into every season with the intention of competing for championships.
On Tuesday evening, the coach rode his combination of youth and experience all the way to a Northwest 1A Conference title that virtually no one anticipated back in August.
East Surry locked up no worse than a share of the league title, along with the No. 1 seed in the conference and state postseason tournaments, with a 19-25, 25-22, 25-18, 25-10 victory over defending champ Mount Airy in the Lady Bears’ gym. East Surry (19-4, 10-1 NW1A) is all but assured of winning the crown outright when it hosts Atkins (5-15, 3-7) on Thursday.
“I thought we had a shot (coming into the season),” said Gilley. “I knew we would have to grow up and I think we have grown up. to come in here and do what we did, especially after losing the first set, we responded well, and our fans and students made it feel like a home game at times.”
The Lady Cardinals started out slowly on Tuesday, committing numerous serving errors that prevented the team from gaining any kind of momentum. With Mount Airy middle hitter Madeline Mayfield displaying a hot hand in the opening set, the Lady Bears took an early 9-5 lead, held off a mini-run by the visitors after that, and then rolled to a 25-19 victory in which the Lady Cardinals never got closer than four in the endgame.
“That was probably the worst serving we’ve had all year,” Gilley said. “We got back to basics and cleaned it up, and it wasn’t that bad after the first set.”
When the teams came back onto the court for the second set, the East Surry volleyball team with nine straight NW1A victories had arrived. The Lady Cardinals’ Tara Beck slammed down an over-dig by the Mount Airy defense for an early 4-2 lead, then delivered a service ace to put her team back on top after the Lady Bears had tied it at 7. In the middle part of the set, Mount Airy got strong play up front from Sadie Brooks and Arry Ward, taking its last lead at 16-15 when Brooks beat Kendall Beck at the net. The Lady Cardinals won the next four in a row, starting with an on-two kill from Bethany Clayton and finishing with a ball that the Lady Bears put off the ceiling and couldn’t handle.
Mount Airy battled back after a time-out and pulled into a 21-all deadlock when Brooks put a kill inside the sideline. The teams traded points, and then East’s Cameron Sloop put a ball away to give East a 23-22 advantage. When the Lady Bears put another ball off the ceiling and couldn’t handle it, the visitors had set point. Beck put a ball off Ward up front for the winner.
Set three started out as a tour de force for East Surry. Clayton scored a block on Brooks for a 2-0 lead, and then blocked Ward on the next point. Then Sloop put a ball off Ward, and Beck won a showdown up front against Lankford. Mount Airy head coach Chuck Morris called time-out, only to see Beck block Brooks to make it 6-0.
Then back came the Lady Bears. Mayfield got her team on the board, by putting a ball off Beck, and then Brooks and Ward followed with kills of their own. Beck was called for a lift violation and it was 6-4, but she redeemed her error by powering a ball through Ward’s block attempt. For the next few minutes, the teams swapped points, but Mount Airy could never get closer than two points.
The Lady Cardinals scored three in a row to lead 19-13 before Sarah Lankford broke the run with an on-two kill, and then the hosts crept back to within 21-18 when an important call went against them. At the time, the Lady Bears had won five out of the last seven points when Beck went for a kill along the right sideline. The ball looked to be out of bounds, which would have given Mount Airy a point and cut the deficit to 21-19, but the official on that side ruled that the ball was good, and hence East led 22-18.
But whether the Lady Cardinals were the beneficiaries of a borderline call or not, there was nothing controversial about the remainder of the match. On the last three points of set three, Sloop, Beck and then Sloop again blasted balls off or through Lady Bear defenders for winners.
“Cameron has had a very good year for us, but tonight, we sent a bunch of different balls to her, and she was able to put a lot of balls away for us,” said Gilley.
East Surry stayed on fire in set four. Clayton had a block and then an on-two kill to put her team on top 3-2, and then Sloop drilled a ball off a blocker to make it 5-2. As the set rolled along, it was clear that Sloop, one of four Lady Cardinal seniors and the only one who earned significant playing time on the school’s 2014 state runners-up, had a hot hand. Clayton set her over and over again and picked up several points that way. Serving at 24-9, Clayton, the likely NW1A Player of the Year this season, was too pumped up and served the ball long, but the Lady Cardinals picked up the title two points later.
Sloop and Beck led the attack for the league champs, with 13 and nine kills, respectively. Beck also scored nine blocks to lead the East Surry front-line defense. Marion and Elise Hayes led the interior and back-line defense, with 16 digs each, although six different Lady Cardinals had multiple digs. Clayton factored into every facet of the contest, with 38 assists, five blocks, three kills and just one ball-hitting error for the second straight match. Freshman Morgan Smith received serve 27 times, served two aces, and had seven digs.
Mount Airy, which still possesses an excellent overall mark of 17-4, 9-2, will host Elkin today and then finish conference play at Winston-Salem Prep on Thursday.
Follow John on Twitter at @johncate73.