PILOT MOUNTAIN — If East Surry’s volleyball team ends up making 2016 a season to remember, the Lady Cardinals might look back at the deciding points of the second set of the Northwest Conference Tournament final as a key moment.
Up until that point, the NW1A regular-season champions were getting it handed to them on the court by arch-rival and regular-season runner-up Mount Airy. The Lady Bears had played some of their best volleyball of the season to win set one, and then stormed back from behind to earn set point in the second, leading 24-23 and needing just to win the next point in order to take a commanding 2-0 lead in the match.
“Most of that second set, we didn’t play well at all, but still found ways to score points and found a way to win,” said East Surry coach Caleb Gilley, whose team has lost just one match since Sept. 1.
Losing the match meant little to East Surry, which already had the No. 1 state playoff seed from the conference locked up as outright conference champs, and they would still lead the season series over Mount Airy 2-1. On top of everything else, four borderline calls in the set had all gone against the home team, and the partisan crowd was none too friendly to the officials.
Leave it to old hands Cameron Sloop and Bethany Clayton to restore order.
Sloop and Clayton, who both played for East Surry two years ago when the team reached the state finals, teamed up to win the the next point, and then Clayton sent one across the court to her teammate at 24-24, which the senior spiked for a 25-24 East Surry lead. The end was almost anticlimactic, as the Lady Bears dug out a ball that sailed over the net, allowing Clayton to dink it back for a winner.
The Lady Cardinals (22-4) never trailed again.
“Once we got a little momentum, with a good student section and fanbase behind us, I felt very confident. We started clicking,” said Gilley.
Clayton opened up the second set with a block, and East Surry dominated the first several minutes of set three. Kendall Beck scored four kills on a variety of shots and Clayton served an ace and made a diving dig on what looked like a sure kill for Mount Airy. The hosts led 9-1 before a service error ended the run, and even though there were several stops in the action over the next several minutes, the Lady Cardinals kept rolling. Sloop beat Sadie Brooks on a play at the net to make it 14-3, and from that point on, the teams traded blows back and forth until the set ended as a 25-15 win for East Surry.
The Lady Bears were down, but not out, and had rediscovered their form during the last several points of the third set. They took an 8-6 lead in set four on an ace by Kayla Hicks, but the hosts tightened up their defense and regained the lead at 10-9 when Clayton and Alyssa Jessup combined to score a block on Arry Ward. Brooks put one away to cut the East advantage to 12-11, only to see Beck answer with a winner of her own. East Surry built its lead to five, but Mount Airy rallied when Sarah Lankford fed Madeline Mayfield for a kill to pull her team within three at 17-14. Lankford herself had a kill moments later and then Hicks served an ace to pull her team within 18-16.
That was as close as the Lady Bears could get, though. After a service error on Mount Airy, Tara Beck took on Mayfield at the net and won the battle for a 20-16 lead. The Lady Bears went under the net on the next point, and were unable to return serve against Sloop on the following one. With the East Surry lead at 22-16, there was a five-minute break in the action while Mount Airy replaced a hurt player and called time-out. The visitors then staged a mini-rally, with Lankford scoring a kill on an on-two play and Mayfield putting a kill through Clayton’s block attempt.
With Mount Airy serving at 19-23 after Ward had a kill, Kendall Beck had the last of her 10 kills, putting a ball off Ward to give the Lady Cardinals match and championship point. The last point of this four-year cycle of the Northwest Conference reached its decisive point when Clayton made a diving save on a ball inches from the floor, keeping it alive for the last of her 10 digs. Moments later, the Lady Bears put the ball into the net and the match was over.
Both teams are likely to have first-round playoff matches when the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs begin on Oct. 26, East Surry as a conference champion and Mount Airy (21-5) as one of the runners-up with the best overall record. The Lady Cardinals could be at home for several rounds of postseason action, a prospect that pleased Gilley.
“You’ve got to be good, and you’ve got to be lucky and catch some breaks (in the playoffs),” said Gilley, whose team reached the third round last year in a rebuilding year. “We’re going to be at home for a little bit, and that’s going to help us. I hope we can make a deep run.”
The Lady Bears put their hosts to the test in set one and played brilliantly, erasing an early 7-5 East Surry lead and taking the lead for good with a 7-0 run that included a block and two kills by Mayfield and an ace by Hicks. The run put Mount Airy on top 14-10. East was able to get back within two points, but strong play at the net by Brooks and Mayfield pushed the lead back out and allowed their team to prevail 25-19.
Set two was filled with controversy, as on four different occasions, one official ruled a point in favor of East Surry and was overruled by another official, and three of the overrules appeared questionable. Nevertheless, the Lady Cardinals kept their composure in what was a tight, back-and-forth affair that reached 17-17 when Tara Beck angled a shot in for a winner. On the next point, Clayton made a cross-court set to Jessup, who put it away to give East the lead. They led for the next several points until a hitting error tied it at 21 and then Ward scored on a dink shot to put the Lady Bears back on top 22-21. The teams alternated the next four points to allow Mount Airy to serve for the set at 24-23.
Clayton, who led her team with 41 assists, 10 digs, six blocks, three kills and three aces, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the tournament. Joining her on the all-tournament team were Chandley Garner of North Stokes, Ceci Kammire of Bishop McGuinness, Kendall Beck (10 kills, five blocks in the final), Sarah Marion (eight kills and three blocks), Mayfield and Brooks.
In addition, Morgan Smith had 18 digs, Jessup eight kills, Smith 12 kills and 19 digs, Elise Hayes 14 digs, and Tara Beck three kills and four blocks for the champions.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.