APEX — After cruising through two rounds of the 2012 volleyball playoffs, it was time for Leesville Road’s biggest postseason test.
The Pride, who had dropped three sets all season long, lost its fourth of the year in a dramatic comeback by host Apex.
Using the home crowd to its advantage, the Cougars nearly did the same in the fourth set, but the Pride withstood the fourth-game rally to come away with a 3-1 victory (25-23, 25-9, 24-26, 25-21).
Leesville Road will put its unbeaten season on the line in a home state quarterfinal match. It will play conference rival Wakefield for the fourth time this season.
“We were dominating in both the third and the fourth set, and they just made great rallies. I think it woke us up a little bit. You can’t just cruise,” coach Taine Mergenthaler said. “You’ve got to stop giving the other team 15 points a set. We play aggressive, but we’ve got to play a better aggressive.”
Leesville’s standout defense played its part as usual.
Sasha Karelov, a Duke recruit, had 30 digs, 13 kills and served for 26 of Leesville Road’s points. Kati Stammen, an Appalachian State recruit, had 26 digs of her own.
The Pride also got contributions from Sarah Kelly (13 kills) and Sam Brown (eight).
“Our whole game plan was to get the middles involved, and I thought they did a fantastic job,” Mergenthaler said.
The first game was a close battle that saw only one lead of more than three points. Leesville Road (25-0) came out on fire in the second game, beating the Cougars to the punch with nine of the first 10 points and then going for the knockout with nine of the last 10.
The Pride was sitting pretty in game three as well, up 19-13. But Apex’s Megan Hooks (eight kills) and Brianna Belicic (11) found holes in Leesville’s defense and helped chip away at the lead.
Almost the exact same thing happened in the fourth game, where Leesville led 20-10 but Apex used four blocks to help cut it to 22-20.
“We have to be ready and on our toes. They were a good team,” Karelov said. “Even though we had leads, they still found a way to come back and we were taken aback by that.”
Apex coach Emily Regan finished her first year with the Cougars with an 18-5 record. Apex will lose four seniors, including Hooks and Melissa Mayfield.
“I’m proud of the girls. We got conference champions (and) we passed the second round of the playoffs, where we got stuck last year,” Regan said.
“I’m excited to keep developing the program.”
Blake: 919-460-2606 or twitter.com/JMBpreps