PILOT MOUNTAIN — On a number of occasions this season, East Surry volleyball coach Caleb Gilley has talked about how his team has several players in their first year on the varsity level and how their progress will determine the success of the Lady Cardinals this season.
After Thursday night, he might not worry so much.
Playing inspired volleyball from wire to wire, his Lady Cardinals took the fight to visiting Mount Airy in a battle for first place in the Northwest 1A Conference, and came away with a 25-18, 25-19, 21-25, 25-23 victory over the state’s sixth-ranked 1A team.
“Some of our young players made some big-time plays down the stretch for us tonight,” said Gilley. “They were a little nervous at the beginning, but our veterans kind of led them along and they made the plays when we needed it.”
East Surry (12-3, 4-1 NW1A) claimed its fifth consecutive victory and moved into a first-place tie with the Lady Bears and North Stokes. The three teams, all of whom own a win and a loss over one of the others, are a full game and a half ahead of everyone else.
The gym was packed with fans long before the match got under way, as the Cardinal rooters pulled for their JV team as they swept the Lady Bears prior to the main event. In the 20 minutes allowed for the teams to warm up for the varsity match, even more people filed in, including a cheering section of East Surry students at one end of the bleachers.
They never let up all evening — and neither did their team.
In set one, the Lady Cardinals scored the first five points of the match before junior Sadie Brooks, who carried much of the Lady Bear offense during the evening, got her team on the board. Mount Airy eventually closed to withing two points at 11-10, but Morgan Smith served an ace to stretch the lead back out, and when Kendall Beck scored a block moments later, the lead was back to five at 18-13. From there, Mount Airy could never get closer than three points and the home team cruised to a 25-18 win.
The Lady Bears were eager to get back on the court and even the score, but Bethany Clayton immediately sent a message for East Surry on the first point. Mount Airy sent a bump too high and over the net, and Clayton leaped into the air and smashed it back into the Lady Bears’ end. The visitors committed errors on the next three points and Lady Bear coach Chuck Morris had to call timeout, only to watch Cameron Sloop hit a winner on a long rally out of the break. When Clayton took on Mount Airy’s Arry Ward at the net and won the battle, the score was 7-1 and East Surry looked set to run the Lady Bears of out of the gym.
It wasn’t going to be that easy. Led by Sarah Lankford and Brooks, the Lady Bears battled back into the set, and then Ward scored off a dump shot and then a spike to make it 13-11. The teams went back and forth for a few points, and then Clayton served an ace, followed by a rejection from Beck. Morris called time again at 19-14, but East Surry had the hot hand and wouldn’t let the Lady Bears back into this one. Alyssa Jessup, who led East Surry with 13 kills, took control in the stretch run and put away the last point of a 25-19 win with a kill just inside the back line.
The third set was the only one in which Mount Airy got the better of play, with Gilley feeling like his team was too often out of system. However, much of that was due to the play of the Lady Bears, who erased an early East Surry lead and made it clear they weren’t getting swept out of Pilot Mountain.Two kills from Ward pulled them into a 9-9 tie, and then Kayla Hicks served back-to-back aces to put her team in front 12-10. Down 17-13, Gilley called a timeout for the only time all evening, but Shelbey Taylor delivered another ace out of that break in the action. East Surry gamely battled back on shots by Jessup and Maggie Holt, and even saved three set points, but finally succumbed 25-21 on a kill by Brooks.
It stood to reason that the favored Lady Bears might seize momentum from there, but the Lady Cardinals refused to let them, nor did they even think Mount Airy should have been favored to beat them. They proceeded to make their point in set four.
“The first two sets, we stayed in system, and I think that gave Mount Airy some problems. The third set, we passed OK, but we weren’t in system,” said Gilley. “We kind of got back to that in the fourth set. When we stay in system, I don’t think there are many teams that can play with us, but there are times when we’re not.
“We were confident coming in. We had beaten them last year (in the Northwest Tournament final) and our kids know all of their kids, and their tendencies, and they know ours. We were confident we could come out and get a win.”
The set started out with the teams slugging it out, Clayton setting up Jessup and Sloop for the home team and Lankford doing the same for Brooks, Ward and Madeline Mayfield on the other end. Mount Airy led 6-5 when Sloop went to the back line and served off several points in a row for the home team. Morris called time with East on top 9-6 after hitting two straight balls long, and Lankford responded with a dump shot for a kill. Beck, then Lankford again, and finally Brooks put balls away, and eventually Mount Airy tied it at 12 and pulled ahead 15-13.
The hosts refused to fold. After a side-out, Gilley summoned Grace Kiser from his bench. Kiser had served 17 aces in her team’s last match, and the freshman wasn’t intimidated here. She served off five straight points, including an ace that made it 18-16. After Sloop had a kill to make it a three-point lead, the Lady Bears fought back again with a series of exciting rallies and finishes, in which Jessup, Brooks and Clayton all made brilliant plays at some point. East Surry smelled victory when Jessup had her final kill of the match for a 23-21 lead, but Mount Airy won the next two points, Brooks tying at 23 on a ball no one could handle for East.
East Surry reached match point following a rally that ended on a dink shot from Beck that the Lady Bears were unable to return. On the last rally, Clayton set Sarah Marion and the Lady Bears rose to challenge. Marion’s shot was returned, but deflected out of bounds.
“We didn’t play at the level we could play at, and they played well,” said Morris. “It was a good high school match. We didn’t play well the first two sets, did play well the second two, but we dug too big of a hole to get out of.”
Clayton had a monster game as the Lady Cardinals’ setter, credited with 42 assists and still finding time to collect six kills, eight digs, a block and three aces. Sloop had 12 kills, 12 digs and an ace. Morgan Smith was credited with three aces and six digs, Holt with four kills and five blocks, Beck with three kills and six blocks, Marion with seven kills, two aces, four blocks and eight digs, and Elise Hayes with 10 digs.
The Lady Cardinals will return to action on Tuesday evening at Atkins. The Lady Bears will be back at home that day facing Winston-Salem Prep.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.