PILOT MOUNTAIN — It took a while for the Mount Airy volleyball team to get going in the season’s first battle with county rival East Surry Tuesday evening.
Once they did, the Bears had more than enough to pull away for a 19-25, 25-23, 25-22, 25-19 victory and maintain a perfect slate in the Northwest 1-A Conference.
The Bears (14-1, 6-0) dropped the first set after coming out of the gate sluggish and falling behind 12-4. The next two sets were closely contested, but Mount Airy managed to move ahead around the midpoint of each set and then hold off a furious rally by the defending conference and West Regional champion Cardinals (8-6, 4-2).
The fifth and deciding set was a tour de force by Bear outside hitter Sadie Brooks, who delivered three consecutive winners after the teams had swapped nearly every point up to a 16-all tie. From there, the visitors rolled to a 23-17 lead and were never threatened again.
“I think we let the crowd and the environment get to us at the start, but we picked it up and stopped messing around,” said Mount Airy coach Chuck Morris. “The kids fought hard in the second, third and fourth sets. Their nature a couple of years ago might have been to fold, but I don’t think that’s their nature anymore.”
When the Bears started to roll, it was just a little too much for the young, but spirited Cardinals, who fought to the very end, and but for a few points, might have been able to reverse the match’s ultimate outcome.
East Surry led wire-to-wire in the first set, as the Bears fell behind due to struggling to receive serve and some strong play at the net from sophomore Bethany Clayton.
Mount Airy rallied to close an eight-point deficit to just two, at 17-15, but after Clayton tipped a loose ball over the Bears’ Megan Fleming to end the run, there was a controversial play at the net on which Coach Morris protested the official’s call and drew a yellow card. His team contested every point the rest of the way, but never got closer than three.
Mount Airy turned the tables in the second set and went on a 7-2 run to lead 21-15, but the Cardinals refused to fold. East’s Alyssa Jessup led a rally with back-to-back kills off a Bear back-line defender, capping off an 8-3 run and cutting the gap to 24-23. Finally, Mount Airy’s Sarah Lankford scored the winner by tipping a shot just over the net into an open spot on the floor for a winner.
Lankford was just getting started. The junior setter dominated the third set, scoring two kills on dink shots at the net, serving an ace, and making a nifty set from one side of the net to the other to set up Madeline Mayfield for a kill, all in a matter of minutes as her team went from two points down to a 15-13 lead. From there, the Bears went on to reach set point at 24-20 on another Lankford drop shot, but East fought back again, closing to 24-22 on a hitting error and an ace from Bryce Smith. Finally, Lankford ended it with another outstanding shot, this time angling a drop shot from one side of the net into an open space for the winning point.
East coach Caleb Gilley was disappointed that his team let the final three sets of the match get away from them, but credited his team with fighting back at the end of each.
“We’ve been working hard to improve our mental toughness in those situations,” he said. “We just dug too big of a hole for ourselves in the second and third sets.”
In the final set, neither team led by more than two points until Brooks scored a kill from mid-court for a 20-17 Bear lead. Jessup hit the ball just long on the next rally to yield another point to Mount Airy, and then Fleming served an ace to put the Bears up by five and all but clinch the victory.
The Cardinals return to action at home against Atkins on Thursday, while the Bears, who now led the Northwest by one game over Bishop McGuinness and by two over East Surry, are off until they host Atkins on Tuesday, Sept. 29.