PILOT MOUNTAIN — “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog.”
Mark Twain never said it, but his old adage also applies to Cardinals.
It’s hard to image a worse matchup for East Surry’s volleyball team than the one it was confronted with in Thursday night’s second round of the NCHSAA 1A state playoffs.
If the Lady Cardinals hadn’t known better, they might have thought that some team from the 4A state volleyball playoffs had gotten the wrong directions and strolled into their gym. Murphy, the runner-up in the Big Smoky Mountain 1A this season, had three players in its lineup who all stood more than six feet tall, including an exceptionally skilled junior middle hitter named Jessica Beckner, who stands roughly 6’3” (the team doesn’t list the players’ heights) and created match-up problems all night long. Murphy entered the match as the state’s fourth-ranked team according to MaxPreps.com, and was just a scant few points in two fifth sets from also coming in undefeated.
“That was by far the biggest and most physical team we have seen all year,” said East Surry coach Caleb Gilley. “They had, hands down, the two best middles we have seen all year.”
However, East Surry did what it has done all season, using strong defense, floor coverage and well-placed shots to defeat the imposing Lady Bulldogs in each of the first two sets. Then Murphy put on a clinic in power volleyball for two sets of its own, getting the Lady Cardinals out of sorts and seemingly knocked out on their collective feet going into a fifth set. That set was a contrast in styles that was a 10-10 deadlock through 20 points. Each team needed just five to advance.
The Lady Cardinals won five of the next six points and lived to fight another day, 25-15, 25-19, 19-25, 19-25, 15-11.
“We hit them early and then kind of found ourselves in a lot of trouble, but we found a way to win,” said Gilley. “Survive and advance, that’s how it goes.”
The victory was a matter of inches and little else. After Murphy (20-3) had battled from from a 5-1 deficit in the final set to tie the score, the next two points went to long rallies that saw players on both sides make spectacular digs, with players hitting the floor on almost every kill try. However, both rallies resulted in points for East Surry when Murphy defenders were called for a double hit. This put the Lady Cardinals three points from a victory and compelled Murphy coach Nikol Watson to call timeout.
Coming out of the break, the Lady Cardinals had two things going for them — the best player on the floor who didn’t look like a WNBA player, Bethany Clayton, and a senior middle hitter named Kendall Beck who refused to back down against the Lady Bulldogs’ physicality. They teamed up on the next point, Clayton’s 47th assist setting up Beck’s eighth kill, and East Surry was two points away from victory.
Beckner was having none of it. She blasted a kill just inside the back line and got her team the ball back.
At 13-11, another long rally followed, and for once, it was the Lady Cardinals’ turn to be lucky. A kill attempt by Hailey Thompson sailed just out of bounds to give East Surry match point. On the final rally of a match that lasted more than two hours, East’s Sarah Marion made a return that Murphy’s Katlyn Styles couldn’t handle.
East Surry claimed victory in a match that neither team truly deserved to lose.
The home team rolled in the opening set, taking an early 9-4 lead before Beckner and her sidekicks on the front line, Emma Stroup and Thompson, brought the Lady Bulldogs back to an 11-all tie. Clayton scored a block to put East on top, and moments later, Beck blocked Thompson to make it 16-13. Clayton served seven straight points after that, featuring a service ace, an on-two kill, and some brilliant play on the outside from Cameron Sloop, and Murphy couldn’t recover.
Set two was tied at 5 when Clayton put the Lady Cardinals ahead with another on-two play, followed by a dink shot from Sarah Marion and then a soft touch shot into the open floor from Maggie Holt. It looked like East might run away with it, but Murphy rallied to tie the set at 14. Marion put a ball off Becker to put the home team back up, but East couldn’t get up by more than two until Sloop put one off Stroup to make it 20-17. Beckner and then Tara Beck scored for their teams, and then Kendall Beck put one away on a long rally. A Morgan Smith ace and then a kill by Sloop off of Thompson won it.
East Surry led the third set 5-3, and then the Lady Bulldogs took command, with Stroop and Aubrey Clapsaddle making big plays, the latter a brilliant dig of a Clayton on-two attempt where she not only made the play, but also managed to direct it over the net and into an open spot on the floor while falling down. An inspired Murphy team built a 17-7 lead and then held off an East Surry comeback in which they got to within five on three occasions, but no closer.
The fourth set was a slugfest where neither team could get a clear edge until late. This set was marked by strong floor play from Murphy’s Abby Carter, Leighton Brown and Stiles, and East’s Elise Hayes and Bryce Smith. Several long rallies took place, and East seemed to be in good shape when it led 14-13. At this point, Clayton delivered a serve two inches long, and then went two inches long on an on-two try to the back of the court. The Lady Cardinals never led again, although they did tie it at 18 on a Marion kill. Beckner then took over down the stretch and Murphy ended the set on a 7-1 run, tying the match at two sets each.
“Going into that fifth set, we felt like it was us against the world,” said Gilley, whose team was frustrated not only by their formidable opponent, but also by a few calls that they had disagreed with in the fourth set. “We let it get in our minds and affect us emotionally. I told them just to control what we can control, and I think we did a really good job in that fifth set.”
Sloop had a career-high 19 kills in the win. Marion added 10, while Clayton and Kendall Beck had eight each, with Alyssa Jessup collecting six. Smith proved an effective weapon from the service line, with six aces. Clayton added three and Sloop two. And no East Surry victory occurs without a superlative effort from Clayton — 47 assists with zero ball-handling errors.
Despite its enormous size disadvantage, East Surry had 15 blocks on the night, led by Kendall Beck with six and freshman Maggie Holt with three. The Lady Cardinals also had 78 digs, led by Sloop with 24, Smith with 17. Hayes with 11 and Marion with 10.
East Surry (24-4) travels to Community School of Davidson on Saturday for a third-round match. CSD (24-1) defeated North Stokes and Voyager Academy in the first two rounds of the playoffs. It’s another matchup of top-10 teams, with the Spartans ranked No. 2 and the Lady Cardinals seventh in the state.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.