RALEIGH — As expected, Cardinal Gibbons will be playing for the state 2-A volleyball championship again Saturday at N.C. State.
The Crusaders rolled to a 3-0 East Regional finals win over East Duplin on Tuesday evening to advance to the state finals for the 11th year in a row. They have won nine of the past 10 state championships, including the past three.
East Duplin came into the contest 24-0 but was no match for coach Jim Freeman's 29-0 bunch.
The Crusaders have not lost a game in the five rounds of playoffs leading up to Saturday's match against either Boonville Starmount or West Henderson.
The Panthers were swamped early in both of the first two games, losing 25-10 and 25-12.
In game one, Gibbons jumped ahead 5-0 and 5-3, then ran off 13 straight points for an 18-3 lead.
The second game was a little closer. East Duplin fell behind 10-1, got to within 14-7, but then Gibbons scored seven straight.
In the third game, East fell behind 5-1, but rallied behind senior setter Ashley Thigpen and junior hitter Lauren Lee to tie the score at 6-6 and 9-9 and was as close as 22-19 late in the game before losing 25-19.
East Duplin coach Susan Thigpen said this year's success was a pleasant surprise.
"We were replacing six seniors, had four people change positions, and I thought at best we'd be second in our conference," Thigpen said. "But these children gave all they could all year. Lauren Lee [5-9] was our kill leader and played with so much heart."
A 6-2 senior, Samantha Starta, who transferred in her junior year, was the only Panther with club volleyball experience.
"These girls play three sports, and the only volleyball they play is with the school," Thigpen said.
Freshman Madison Bugg led the winners with 15 kills. She also had eight aces.
"She has been a huge difference," Freeman said. "She was an All-America AAU setter but moved to outside hitter this year and led us in kills."
Bugg moved because junior Avery Striebel missed the season with a stress fracture. She played for the first time Tuesday.
"She got injured at the USA Nation team camp, and she's a star outside hitter," Freeman said.
Senior setter Molly Krull, who will play at Tampa next year, had 36 assists and five aces in the win.
Senior Michelle Nemesi, a Villanova recruit, and junior Christina Dorismond each had nine kills.
Cayla Shortley, the senior Libero who will be at North Carolina next year, had 10 digs against East Duplin.
"The big emphasis for us is to try to control the ball in every aspect," said Freeman, who now has 401 coaching wins.
Despite the constant winning, the Gibbons girls still stay focused, according to Freeman.
"They're all into it," Freeman said. "They do a very good job of trying to play well every time out.
"They know Saturday we'll face a really good team, whether it's Starmount or West Henderson," Freeman said.
Cardinal Gibbons defeated Starmount earlier this year and last year in the state finals. The previous two years, the Crusaders beat West Henderson in the state finals.