DOBSON — Brittany Tolbert got everything she wanted out of her first official match as Surry Central’s head coach, except what she wanted the most.
The Lady Eagles played hard and hustled for all five sets of their season opener against Wilkes Central on Tuesday night, but came up just short on the scoreboard, as the visitors prevailed 25-16, 15-25, 25-20, 21-25, 15-9.
“This is my first game, so of course I wanted to win, but you can’t win them all,” said Tolbert. “This did show me places we need to work on. All of the mistakes we made, and I think communication was our biggest issue, are things we can work on in practice.”
Both teams displayed weaknesses throughout the more than two hours of volleyball, but each team also displayed remarkable hustle. There were many occasions where one team hit what appeared to be a sure winner, only for the other side to dig it and often come back and win the point itself. In set three, which took more than 45 minutes to complete, the score was tied 10 different times before the visitors won a long rally at 20-all and seized the momentum, winning the last five points of the set despite continued resistance by the home team.
A less mentally strong team would have folded after losing such an intense and emotional set to fall behind 2-1. Not the Lady Eagles.
“The fact that we took them to five sets was hustle in and of itself, and it shows how hard we were working and how bad we wanted it,” said Tolbert.
The teams split the first 10 points before Wilkes surged ahead 7-5, then 10-7 after Central had tied it again. Tolbert called for a time-out, and her team came out of the break and rallied. Central won the next point and then went on a run, with an ace by Madison Goins tying the score at 11. Central took the lead on the next point, when Wilkes Central’s front line leaped up expecting a spike from Tara Blevins, only for Blevins to dink the ball over and behind them for a point. When Jenna Simpson served an ace for a 16-13 lead, it was Wilkes who was asking for time. The visitors won the next point, but freshman Mia McMillen answered for Surry Central. At 21-16, Abigail Johnson served an ace, and before long, the Lady Eagles held four set points, eventually prevailing 25-21.
The home team started out the fifth set well, with Goins serving back-to-back aces. However, Wilkes middle hitter Malaya Cowles, who was a problem for Central all night, got a block on Simpson to get her team back into it. Simpson answered by rejecting Cowles on the next point and then hitting the winner moments later, but the next two points ended with kill attempts by the Lady Eagles sailing just past the end line. Wilkes Central was able to tie the score and then move ahead 8-6 on a series of plays that were almost all very close, but went the visitors’ way. One visiting fan commented that “the volleyball gods are with us right now.”
Wilkes got the lead to four points, and in a fifth set to 15 points, that was almost too much to overcome. The Lady Eagles fought hard on every point down the stretch, but this was Wilkes Central’s day on an evening where both teams put forth effort worthy of a victory.
The only time that the home team ever appeared out of it was in the very first minutes of the match. The visitors won seven of the first eight points, forcing Tolbert to call the first time-out of her career as a head coach. Her team fought back to 8-4, but then Wilkes went on a second 7-1 run and led 15-5. Central answered with some strong play of its own, as McMillen served her first career ace, Emma Garland had an impressive kill and Simpson blasted one past two Wilkes blockers, but the Lady Eagles couldn’t get closer than 19-12. The teams more or less traded the rest of the way, which gave the visitors the set win.
The home team looked much more comfortable in set two. Central reeled off four straight points, starting with a nifty shot by Blevins into the back right corner and ending with a smash by Blevins, to lead 6-3. The visitors won the next two points, but the Lady Eagles didn’t back down, getting strong defense and well-placed attacks by Garland and Jordyn Coe. Johnson served an ace and then Goins had a perfect set for a Blevins finish as Central went ahead 20-10. This time, it was the Lady Eagles who just had to trade to win the set, which they did.
In addition to Cowles, who stands 6’2”, Wilkes Central had three players in its rotation who were 5’10” or taller. Tolbert said that while this gave her team some problems, avoiding some of their own mistakes could have still made the difference.
“Wilkes Central is middle-strong. They have a phenomenal middle, and that is possibly what beat us, but we beat ourselves, too,” she said.
The Lady Eagles have a day to work on things before traveling to Mount Airy on Thursday evening.
Reach John via Twitter at @johncate73.