PILOT MOUNTAIN — Technically, it was a battle for first place in the Northwest Conference standings. In reality, it was just a victory lap.
With East Surry going for a second straight Northwest 1A Conference title and visiting Mount Airy trying to tie for first place, the Lady Cardinals made an emphatic statement, securing the championship with a 25-12, 25-12, 25-23 sweep of the Lady Bears in a match that wasn’t even competitive until the final set.
East Surry (19-2 overall, 8-0 NW1A) dominated in the first two sets before the Lady Bears fought back in set three, taking an early 10-4 lead. The hosts responded to the challenge and took the lead, but the Mount Airy answered back and the teams traded blows down the stretch before East won the final three points of the match.
“I’m proud of this group,” said East Surry head coach Caleb Gilley, whose team won the league for the third time in four seasons. “They’ve stuck together and played well.”
The Lady Cardinals, who are two five-set losses against the state’s No. 1-ranked 2A team from being perfect this season, began Tuesday’s match like gangbusters, winning the first five points and forcing Mount Airy head coach Chuck Morris into an immediate time-out. The Lady Bears got on the board after that, but there was only one brief stretch where it looked like they might get back into it, starting when Avery Cox scored a block on Allie Bruner with her team down 12-5. Moments later, Arry Ward got a strong set and put it away to make it 13-7, but that was as good as it got. Sarah Marion won the next point on a dump shot that the Mount Airy blockers didn’t expect. At 19-10, Maddie Payne scored a block for East, and two points later, Bethany Clayton scored her seventh kill of the set when a Lady Bear player’s dig attempt rebounded right over the net back to Clayton, who crushed it for a point. Mount Airy called time out again, but couldn’t mount a rally.
Set two opened with Maggie Holt bringing the thunder on the first point, and East Surry grabbed a quick 6-1 lead before the Lady Bears (11-11, 7-2) finally won two in a row. At 6-3, the Lady Cardinals went right back to their go-to player, with Kelsey Heflin setting Clayton for the kill. This put the 5’10” senior on the service line and set the stage for another East Surry charge, which ballooned the lead to 13-3 on an ace before Hanne Cooke scored a kill for the Lady Bears and ended the 7-0 run. However, there was no Mount Airy recovery and the second set ended in another 25-12 score.
In the third set, the Lady Cardinals struggled early both on the attack and on serve, committing two errors of each type to stake the visitors to an early lead. This seemed to spark the Lady Bears, and Cox got the ball to Piper Draughon for a 7-3 Mount Airy lead. Cooke won the next one and then East was forced out of system on the next two points, losing them as the Lady Bears extended their lead to 10-4.
Gilley refused to call time-out and his team responded to the adversity. Heflin set up Maggie Holt for a quick point and the Lady Cardinals started to roll. Bruner put one away and then Clayton struck again, this time on a dink shot reminiscent of her days as a setter. With Mount Airy ahead 12-10, the team’s new setter, Heflin, fooled Ward on an on-two play and put East within one. Clayton crushed a ball out of a Lady Bear time-out to tie it, and after back-to-back attack errors by the visitors, East had finished a 10-2 run and led 14-12. Ward got her team back on track after a dig by Kayla Hicks prevented Mount Airy from losing another point. The teams then were tied at 15, 16 and 17 before the Lady Bears won two straight. Down 20-18, the Lady Cards pulled even on back-to-back dink shots by Holt and Clayton. The teams tied at 21 and 22 before Madeline Mayfield hit a hard smash that Clayton couldn’t handle. It was 23-22 Mount Airy, and it looked like the Lady Bears might become only the third team to take a set from East this season.
It didn’t happen. On the next point, Clayton attacked from the outside and scored her 23rd kill of the match. Mount Airy tried to answer, but Draughon got a bad set and put the ball into the net to give the Lady Cardinals match point. The visitors called time-out, but when the teams came back on the floor, Heflin served an ace to make her team the 2017 Northwest Conference champions.
“Things didn’t go the way we’d scripted it in set three, but they kept fighting and kept fighting,” said Gilley. “This is a group that at the beginning of the season, they would have lost that set, but they’ve grown and gotten better.”
East Surry scored kills at an impressive .457 clip on the evening. Holt and Marion had six kills and Bruner five. The Lady Cardinal defense was led by libero Morgan Smith with 20 digs, followed by Bruner with 17 and Clayton with 14. Heflin had 38 assists to go with her two kills and championship-clinching ace.
Following the match, the East Surry players ceremonially added a “2017” that had already been ordered for the school’s conference volleyball championship banner.
“They wanted to put (the 2017) up immediately,” said Gilley. “Right at the end, they went and got it out of the office.”
The Lady Cardinals host North Forsyth today and will play a double-header with Winston-Salem Prep on Thursday to wrap up their regular season. Mount Airy hosts Bishop McGuinness on Thursday to finish its regular season.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.