PILOT MOUNTAIN — It’s always a sweet day when offered a chance at redemption.
A 25-4 record was enough to give the 2016 Lady Cardinals a three seed in the 1A State Volleyball Tournament. The first two rounds saw East Surry host Highland School of Technology and Murphy High School, respectively. After defeating its first two opponents, East went on the road to face second-seeded Community School of Davidson.
The Cardinals’ season came to an abrupt halt four sets later, while their opponents went on to win the 1A State Championship.
362 days later, East Surry vanquished its demons by defeating Starmount 3-0 to advance to the fourth round of the playoffs. Despite a sweep on the final score sheet, the Cardinals’ victory over the Rams was anything but easy.
The first set was a great indicator of the match to come. Back-and-forth action would ensue, not allowing either team to maintain a serve for very long. East Surry maintained the lead, but couldn’t run away with it. Both back rows richocheted many attacks to force longer rallies.
With an 11-11 tie on the scoreboard, the Lady Cards took over. Bethany Clayton fooled defenders by throwing in a tip every few spike attempts. Clayton’s 42 attacks and 18 kills led her team in the match.
Allie Bruner contributed to the Cards’ run from the service line. Bruner served a 6-0 run for the Cards, increasing their lead to 17-11 before Starmount was forced to call a timeout.
A lift call gave the Rams possession, albeit short-lived. East Surry regained the serve and didn’t relinquish it until the end of the set. Morgan Smith floated her serve barely over the net for an ace that fired the Cardinals up and led to another Starmount timeout.
Smith nearly aced the Rams out of the timeout, but a diving save prevented it. Smith would continue her marksmanship on the next serve with another ace. East continued to rack up points until Kelsey Heflin set-faked the Rams to win the set. The Cardinals’ 14-1 run gave them a 25-12 win.
Starmount gained the lead early in the second set by blocking Clayton’s spike onto the Cardinal side of the court. Clayton changed her strategy with a tip that got East Surry on the board.
With the action once again back-and-forth, neither team showed a true advantage. The game took place mostly in the trenches, with both teams using their blockers to win points. Starmount’s Kayla Vanhoy and East Surry’s Maddie Payne exchanged blocks to give their team the lead.
The Rams’ Maggie Freed and Vanhoy were the primary offensive weapons for Starmount. A mix of right and left-handed kills kept the Cards guessing for a while.
Heflin increased the Cards’ lead with perfectly placed serves, but the Rams closed the gap on their next service. It wasn’t until Smith took the service line at 15-13 that one team was able to create a sizable point differential.
Smith continued to serve short balls, leading the Cardinals on a six-point streak before the home team was called for a penalty. Maggie Holt hit one of her kills to give possession back to East Surry.
Not giving up, a kill from Starmount’s Callie Trivette started a 3-0 run for her team. However, a service error would halt the Rams’ momentum and give East Surry a 25-17 set win.
Starmount once again took an early lead, capitalizing on East Surry net violations. Sarah Marion scored the Cards’ first point on a spike that was so hard it went through the blockers’ hands.
Clayton and Payne were like bouncers for a club, denying just about everything the Rams sent their way. The duo combined for 11 of the team’s 12 blocks.
Clayton took the service line and turned a 6-6 tie into an 11-6 East Surry lead. The lead was short-lived, as Starmount came back to tie the score at 13.
Strong serving continued to be an asset for East as Heflin aced the Rams over and over. The Cardinals only committed two errors on 75 total serves. Heflin and Smith each had five aces, with the team notching a total of 13 in the match.
Similar to the previous sets, East Surry ran away with the match. Starmount had trouble returning the Cardinals’ attacks down the stretch. Despite their best efforts, the Rams couldn’t come back. East Surry won the third set by a margin of 25-17.
Coach Caleb Gilley said it was a goal for the Cardinals to make a deep playoff run, especially based on the end of last season. Gilley said he knows his team can keep competing.
“I don’t want to see it end, because I enjoy coming to practice everyday,” Gilley said. “I enjoy being around them because they’re a great group that works hard and they’re good at what they do.”
What was once a dream of advancing in the playoffs is now a reality for East Surry. But their journey isn’t finished yet, according to Gilley.
“We’ve improved a ton at little things, but they’re still trying to get better,” Gilley said.
Reach Cory on Twitter @MrCoryLeeSmith