FOUR OAKS — Midway through a hard-fought volleyball match against South Johnston on Tuesday evening, Cleveland coach Megan Morris asked her team if second place in the conference meant anything to them.
The players quickly nodded their heads, a few shouting “Yes.” Then they went out on the court and played like it.
Cleveland, a third-year school, rallied from a 2-1 deficit to defeat South Johnston in five sets and claim a share of second place in the regular season in the Eastern Carolina 3A Conference.
“It was a roller coaster,” Cleveland senior middle hitter Courtney Ireland said of the road victory. “We had a timeout and coach said, ‘Tell me honestly, does second place mean anything to you?’ We all shook our heads. After that it just clicked. We all wanted it so badly.”
Cleveland (12-8, 8-4 Eastern Carolina 3A) lost the first game 24-26, but tied the match at 1-1 with a 25-16 victory in the second game. The Rams went ahead 8-3 in the third game, but South Johnston roared back with 12 straight points and went on to win 25-12.
It was during the third game that Morris asked her team if it wanted to grab a share of second in the league.
“I told them that second place has got to mean something and they went out and played like they wanted second place,” Morris said. “They pulled it together. … That was a big win for us. For coming in tied for fourth last year and this year tied for second, that says a lot about the girls because it’s the same group.”
Cleveland finished fifth in its first year of competition and tied for fourth last season, making the playoffs for the first time. This year, they went one better – jumping to second, finishing in a tie with North Lenoir. Four teams from the conference make the playoffs.
“I feel like if we built some momentum [in the program], when the younger girls come up they will be continue it,” Ireland said. “I hope we set a standard.”
Ireland was dominant at the net for Cleveland, finishing with 25 kills and three blocks.
Ireland had six kills in the fourth game when the Rams won 25-17 to tie the match at 2-2.
In the fifth game, Ireland tied the score at 1-1 with a kill, then scored three of the next four Rams points with two kills and a block as Cleveland took a 5-1 lead.
That was the plan, Morris said.
“I told them in the last game, ‘We are going to Courtney. Courtney you are going to get it in that 30-by-30 [court] and we are going to keep going to you until this game is over,’ ” the Rams’ coach said.
The Rams went on to win 15-9. South Johnston pulled within 11-9 in the final game, but Ireland turned the tide with three straight kills.
South Johnston (10-13, 5-6), a traditional volleyball power, is likely to finish out of the playoffs. Unless the Trojans can defeat 12-time conference champion Triton in its regular-season finale, South Johnston will finish in fifth place in the league.
“We have played very strong at points this season but just haven’t been consistent enough to beat good teams like tonight,” South Johnston coach Matthew Adams said. “We were just giving them points, shooting ourselves in the foot. In the fourth and fifth sets, we three-balled too much and they were playing offense. That was the difference.
“When we pass the ball and set the ball, we can swing aggressively and score points. When we don’t, when we three ball, we push and give them an easy ball to play.”
Ireland was not a solo act against the Trojans.
Libero Krista Haschke was at her gritty best, diving for digs and playing an excellent game on the back line. At one point, she took a spike off her face trying to keep the ball in play. She went to the bench for a quick check, then was back on the court diving for more balls.
“She’s a tough girl anyway,” Morris said. “She’s not going to come out of the game.”
Junior setter Courtney Morris, the coach’s daughter, put Ireland in position to pile up kills with accurate passes to the net. Morris also had several crucial points on push shots that found holes in the South Johnston defense, including match point when she pushed it deep to the corner.
Despite the stumble in the third game, the Rams never lost sight of the goal. It took maximum effort and five games, but in the end Cleveland was right where it wanted to be.
“After the match I told them, ‘You all told me something that second place did mean something to you,’ Coach Morris said.