North Surry head coach Shane Slate has been around the block enough to know that the second round is when the real playoffs begin.
After an easy opening-round win on Saturday, the Lady Greyhounds received their first challenge of the postseason in Tuesday’s second round of play, when North Lincoln of the 2A South Fork Conference forced the state’s top-ranked 2A team to deliver in order to claim a 25-17, 22-25, 25-17, 25-19 victory.
“I knew this was going to be tough, because there are a lot more good teams in the 2A than they’re have been,” said Slate. “There are eight former 3A teams in the West, and that was one of them. They came out of a great 3A conference last year and now they’re in a good 2A. They had a lot of really good players. I knew from the league they were in and the schedule they played, what kind of team they were.”
The visiting Knights (20-6 overall), became only the sixth team this season to win as much as a set off North Surry (27-1), which regained the state’s top 2A ranking in the MaxPreps.com power ratings on Monday. North Lincoln, which became the third South Fork team into the field after a hotly contested regular-season battle with East Lincoln and Maiden, entered the match ranked eighth.
Initially, it didn’t look like much of a contest. The match opened with Dixie Fulk setting up Mikaela Johnson for a spike, and by the time Johnson smashed a ball across the net on a one-touch service return, the Lady Hounds led 10-0. It wasn’t going to be that easy, though. It never is.
Lincoln’s Alyssa Hager finally got her team going with a kill, and then 5’9” senior outside hitter Katie Clements, whose explosive play would give North fits all evening, got up for a block on Johnson to make it 10-2. The Lady Hounds pushed the lead to as much as 16-3, but then the Knights came storming back. Two long runs bookended around a North flurry made it 21-14 when Slate asked for a time-out. The Lady Hounds then kept Lincoln at bay in the endgame, with Johnson spiking the ball out of the break and Paige Sizemore making a shot from backline to backline for a 23-14 lead. The Knights got three more in a row, but then North got the last two.
The hosts led set two 4-1, and then Clements was heard from again, scoring off a dink shot and then putting one off Johnson. Johnson stuffed her in return, and the two kept jousting frequently as North Surry edged out to a 14-11 lead. At this point, the visitors took command, scoring four straight to move into the lead. North tied it at 15, 16, 20 and 21, but Clements put her team back on top with a spike, and then her teammate Brooklyn Harris put a shot off Johnson’s hands. Johnson won the next point, but a service error followed by a hitting error gave the set to the Knights.
“(Clements) is a hammer,” said Slate. “That left hand on the right side, that’s something we haven’t seen.”
North got it back together in set three, forcing Lincoln coach Lynn Rhyne to call timeout with her team down 5-0 after two kills each from Camille Cartwright and Johnson. The Lady Hounds earned a 10-1 lead before Clements, who had 25 kills on the evening, finally halted the run. Again, led by Clements and Jenna Cashion, the Knights rallied and got within 13-12. At this point, Cartwright and Sizemore made big plays for North, scoring back-to-back kills from off their own backline. After a passing error handed the Lady Hounds another point, Cartwright smashed a ball off Harris to make it 17-12, and Fulk capped off the 6-0 run with an on-two kill. The Knights never got closer than five the rest of the set.
The first several minutes of set for were another dogfight, neither team backing down from the other. North led 8-6 when Fulk scored a block, but Lincoln came back with three in a row, capped by Cashion, an all-SFC performer, putting one off Sizemore for a 9-8 lead. The teams traded blows until the score was tied at 14. The next point was a long rally that Martha Holt won for the Lady Hounds, and they led the rest of the way. Fulk rejected Harris, and Sizemore had a winner on a dink shot. Then Fulk blocked Cashion, and after an attack error by the visitors, it was 19-14.
The Knights died hard, winning the next two in a row, but Sizemore put one off a blocker. Cashion answered for Lincoln and it was 20-17. Then North’s Emma Haynes surprised the Knights with a spike of her own. Cashion and Johnson traded blows, but swapping points did North Lincoln no good. At 22-19, Sizemore uncorked a rocket from near her back line that landed perfectly on the other end. Harris was an inch long on her attempt to respond, and match point ended with a spike by Johnson.
Johnson matched Clements’ fire with her own, scoring 19 kills with just one attack error. Sizemore, despite battling a nagging injury, stepped up with 11 kills and 24 digs. Shelnutt, with 31 digs, and Holt, with 24, worked tirelessly on the defensive end. Fulk had 41 assists, 16 digs and five blocks, and Cartwright had eight kills and 14 digs.
The Lady Hounds will be back at home on Thursday night for a match against seventh seed Mt. Pleasant (26-1), which edged Maiden 3-2 on Tuesday. The Tigers, who won the Rocky River Conference, are the state’s 13th-ranked 2A team, but will move up after knocking off No. 5 Maiden.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.