“PLAYOFFS!?” Much like former Indianapolis Colts coach Jim Mora, we all feel a rush of emotions as the regular season comes to an end and playoffs begin. The task sounds quite simple on paper: win six matches and you become the state champion.
The process isn’t nearly as easy as it sounds. Just ask the North Surry Greyhounds. Living the mantra of another legendary coach, the late Jim Valvano, the Hounds survived an early onslaught by Smoky Mountain to advance to the second round.
The Mustangs (8-15) came to town as the 31 seed in the West, with North Surry (26-1) ranked as the second seed in the region. The visitors weren’t intimidated by the Greyhounds’ impressive resume, and jumped out to an 8-1 lead in the first set.
A combination of mistakes by North Surry, such as hitting the ball deep on three straight plays, and the nothing-to-lose attitude of their opponent caught the home team off-guard. Shea Sutton was the star for Smoky Mountain, making key hustle plays and spikes.
Coach Shane Slate let his girls adjust without a timeout, leading to a kill by Mikaela Johnson. The kill ended the Mustangs’ run and sent Johnson to the service line. Johnson had three of the match’s best serves to cut the lead to three. Johnson recorded two of the team’s five aces in this sequence.
Paige Sizemore and Martha Holt found their element soon after by pounding balls at the Mustangs. A failed return by Smoky Mountain’s Sarah Wallace was the first big mistake made by the visitors. North Surry chipped away until the set was tied at 11 apiece. The Hounds finally took the lead at 15-14, resulting in a time-out by the Mustangs.
Smoky Mountain came out of the break with new life. Points went back-and-forth with neither team able to pull away. Strong serving by the Mustangs rattled the Hounds, while the visitors had trouble bypassing the blockers in Johnson, Holt and Dixie Fulk.
Smokey Mountain held a 22-20 lead before Fulk made a surprise kill, leading to a 5-0 run by the Greyhounds to win the set.
Slate’s squad continued their momentum into the second set, gaining a 6-1 lead. Johnson and Camille Cartwright set-up kill after kill, combining for 23 total kills in the match. The Mustang back line struggled to combat the duo’s attacks. Brooklyn Ensley made an incredible dig on a Johnson kill attempt to keep play alive.
A long rally ensued at 6-3 that got the crowd even more into the match. The Greyhounds would eventually take the point and go on a 7-0 run to increase their lead to 14-3, a complete 180 from the beginning of the first set. The run ended on an attack by Johnson that went out of bounds and straight for the bleachers.
Smoky Mountain kept trying to fight back, but the defense of North Surry proved to be too much. One sequence saw Mustang Maci Long get three consecutive attacks that were sent back by Evan Shelnutt. Shelnutt also maintained excellent position, backing up her blockers to keep play alive.
Still fighting from behind, the Mustangs hopes were crushed by a Johnson kill that resonated throughout Ron King Gym. The Hounds would go on to win the second set 25-13.
Early struggles in set three once again put the Mustangs down again, 5-1. Smoky Mountain wasn’t ready for the season to end, however, and made a comeback to reclaim the lead 6-5. The Mustangs set up Sutton for more kills to keep them in the fight, but Johnson and Sizemore returned the favor.
The Greyhounds held a 10-7 lead when Fulk made an incredible play right in front of her bench. Fulk dove after an attack by Smoky Mountain, started to swing her arm before realizing the ball would land just out of bounds, and retracted her arm while falling exhibiting great court awareness.
When the scoreboard read 14-9, North Surry decided it was time to end the match. The Greyhounds were firing on all cylinders and scored 11 uninterrupted points to end the match. A combination of excellent serving from Karlie Marion and net play that continued to impress led the Hounds to victory.
Despite only playing one set, Marion had the third highest serve count on the team. North Surry only committed two errors out of 73 total service attempts. Mikaela Johnson led the team in kills with 13, while Paige Sizemore had the most total attacks.
The field has been cut in half from 64 to 32 as the chase for a championship becomes more and more realistic for the Greyhounds. North Surry will host North Lincoln on October 24 in the second round. North Lincoln (20-5) swept Brevard in the first round.
For the Hounds, the gameplan is just as Jimmy V said: survive and advance.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith