FOUR OAKS — Three weeks removed from a tough five-set defeat at home to South Johnston, the Cleveland volleyball team knew it had a tough task at hand taking on the Trojans on their senior night in front of a packed gymnasium.
With third place in the Two Rivers 3A Conference on the line and a likely accompanying playoff berth as well, the Rams repaid South Johnston with a dramatic five-set win of their own (25-20, 20-25, 25-21, 21-25, 17-15).
After jumping out in front early in the final set, the Rams (7-9 overall, 5-4 Two Rivers) needed to stave off four match points before roaring back, winning six of the set’s final seven points to put themselves in third place outright with one conference match remaining.
“Those girls could have given up there in that last game when we were down,” Cleveland coach Megan Morris said. “I’m proud of each and every one of them. They each came out tonight and did something good.”
After South Johnston took a 14-11 lead in the fifth set, two unforced errors turned in by the Trojans opened the door for Cleveland and the Rams’ Marina Roe gladly took advantage of the opportunity.
Roe accounted for the rest of Cleveland’s scoring including the match-winner when a South Johnston mis-hit on its first touch resulted with the ball just clearing the net where Roe was waiting to pound it straight down for the kill.
“We have to blame ourselves,” South Johnston coach Matthew Adams said. “When you have the chance to finish it up 14-11 on your home floor on your senior night and you don’t do it, that’s your fault.
“We weren’t consistent enough, that’s the bottom line.”
Consistency seemed to be unattainable for much of the night as the two evenly-matched squads took turns grabbing the momentum.
After splitting the first two sets, Cleveland used a great service run from Brittany Preston in the third set to win 11 of the set’s final 13 points to take the 2-1 lead.
South Johnston answered in the fourth set, mounting a late rally of its own after falling behind 16-11. The Trojans started rolling thanks to some great serves from senior Krista Collins and a dynamic attack that saw outside hitters ChyAnn Kethcum (10 kills) and Alexis Massengill (eight kills) as well as middle hitters Emma Blackman (10 kills) and Madison Byrd (4 kills) take turns providing the offensive firepower.
But it proved to not be enough for the Trojans (11-8, 4-5), who will most likely need to win the conference tournament to prolong its season as a participant in the state playoffs.
“They’ve worked hard and we’ve got a talented group,” Adams said of his senior class that includes Kayla Allen, Katie and Kris Barbour, Byrd, Cailyn Clymore, Collins, Kethcum and Massengill. “Our conference is just pretty strong. It’s a shame that this team here doesn’t make the playoffs.”
Roe led the Rams with 16 kills and served as the focal point of Cleveland’s attack. It was an attack, however, that was stymied a bit by the South Johnston blockers.
Emma Blackman led the Trojans with nine blocks and Byrd added five of her own.
With Roe finding less lanes to drive the ball in the middle of the court, senior setter Courtney Morris, who ended the match with 31 assists, began finding sophomore outside hitter Walli Driggers and Driggers came through with 10 big kills.
Krista Haschke led the Rams with15 digs while Hannah Adams put pressure on the Trojans by mixing up her serves especially down the stretch in the fifth and final set.
“We knew the game was important and we weren’t just going to give it to them,” Courtney Morris said. “Hannah Adams stepped in, served great for us and got us back up. After that, we lost a point but got it right back and didn’t let up.”