All season long, Mount Airy’s volleyball team has battled back when it’s gotten behind in a set, but rarely have they been able to finish off a comeback with a win.
On Saturday afternoon, facing a determined team not wanting their season to come to an end, the Lady Bears delivered.
The 13th-seeded team in the West Regional was already in control of their first-round 1A state playoff match with Union Academy, but Mount Airy found itself in trouble during the third set, rallying from an early seven-point deficit only to fall behind again. Then, with the visiting Cardinals just a handful of points away from forcing a fourth set, the Lady Bears got rolling again and advanced to the second round with a 25-15, 25-21, 25-19 victory.
Mount Airy (14-12 overall) advanced to a second-round meeting with Big Smoky Mountain Conference champion Murphy on Tuesday night. The Lady Bulldogs (20-0) are the fourth seed in the West Regional and had a bye in the opening round of the tournament. The match is tentatively scheduled for 7 p.m. at Murphy High School, a 268-mile bus ride from Mount Airy.
“We’re happy with the results, but now we’ve got a long trip to Murphy,” said Mount Airy coach Chuck Morris said. “We’re going to be tired when we get there, but we’ll be ready to play.”
Union Academy (11-10), the fourth-place team in the PAC-7 1A and the 20th seed in the West, played spirited volleyball and proved to be very strong defensively, but rarely was able to match the Lady Bears on the attack. However, the Cardinals got tougher as the match went along. Mount Airy dominated the first set and led 20-15 in set two after Hanne Cooke scored a block and prompted Union coach Rachel Hyatt to call time-out.
Hannah Williams, who played one of her best matches of the season for the Lady Bears, scored out of the break to make it 21-15, but then the Cardinals reeled off six of the next seven points and trailed just 22-21 when Williams stepped up again, crushing a ball off Sydnie Townsend to slow down Union’s momentum. From there, Mount Airy was able to win the next two points and take the set when Arry Ward beat Lauryn Boyd at the net, a confrontation that occurred many times in this match.
Even though Union had lost the set and was now down 2-0, it had gained confidence and that carried over into set three. For the first 10 minutes of the set, the Cardinals were in the ascendant, playing tough defense and getting strong play up front as well, and it was all that the Lady Bears could do to tread water. Union had a seven-point lead three different times and was still up five when Piper Draughon finished off a rally from the right-outside spot, then took serve and delivered an ace that made it 14-11. Three more hard-fought points followed, as Avery Cox made a perfect set to Madeline Mayfield for a kill and then Williams scored off a dink shot before drilling a ball off Boyd on the Union back line to tie the score.
The visitors wouldn’t back down. Another long rally resulted in Autumn Scruitsky winning with a dink shot over the Lady Bear front line and in front of the back. Union then won the next three points in a row to lead 18-14 and appeared to once again be in control of the set. Then the home team caught a break when Scruitsky served a ball into the net.
Mount Airy didn’t need a second mulligan. Cooke went to the service line and delivered a ball that Union couldn’t return. Then Ward crushed one off a Cardinal defender. At 18-17, Cooke served a clean ace and the Lady Bears came all the way back a second time. And they didn’t stop. On the next point, Cox dove to her left to save a ball, and not only did so, but sent it over the net into a dead spot on the floor, and Mount Airy led. Two errors by Union followed by Cox setting Mayfield for a spike made it 22-18.
Union won the next point, but that was all. Mayfield and Ward scored the kills on the last two points of the match.
“We made a few errors early, and the team kind of pulled back together toward the end of that last set,” said Morris.
The Lady Bears took their first lead at 3-2 in the first set and never trailed in the match after that. Up 5-3, Mayfield crushed a ball and sparked her team on a 5-0 run. It was 12-4 when Williams smashed a ball off Boyd, and then the Cardinals used their defense to reduce the gap to 16-11. But Union committed a service error on the next play, and Mount Airy remained in control the rest of the way, getting strong play from Cox and Draughon down the stretch.
Set two saw Union playing much better offensively, but Kayla Hicks and Mayfield were solid on the back line for the Lady Bears, and they built a 14-9 lead before the Cardinals closed back within one. Cooke scored a kill to make it 16-14 and Mount Airy went on a run of its own before Union responded again.
The Lady Bears’ next opponent, Murphy, ran roughshod over the BSMC for the second year in a row. The Bulldogs were only extended to a fifth set twice all season in repeating as conference champions. A year ago, they had posted a 20-3 record, falling to East Surry in the second round. Murphy is an offense-minded team led by a front line of Jessica Beckner (210 kills), Hailey Thompson (163) and Aubrey Clapsaddle (116). Beckner is a 6’3” multi-sport athlete who has already signed a full basketball scholarship to Division II Young Harris College.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.