APEX — The first part of the season is a good time for the elite volleyball teams to test their mettle against other elite volleyball teams. And in Wake County, there are always worthy opponents to be found.
Thursday night was a rematch of last season’s third round of the playoffs between Apex and Leesville Road, who have combined to represent the East in the 4A state championship game twice in the last three years.
Both teams found out a little bit more about their strengths and weaknesses as Apex defeated Leesville 3-2 (25-19, 16-25, 25-19, 20-25, 15-10).
What worked: Apex (1-1), coming off a Monday loss to Cardinal Gibbons to open the year, found success in its ball control. The errors were few on the Cougars’ end, especially after Apex started tipping the ball over Leesville’s formidable block.
“The first few points are like a wake-up call for us. Then we know what we have to do and can go from there,” Apex junior Ally Beckman said. “We have really good ball control on our team and we help each other out. We’re not afraid to change things up.”
Apex coach Emily Regan knew that ball control was going to be important in the match, with two of her top hitters out with injuries.
“Keeping it in play is what I want to see from our girls,” Regan said. “They did a great job of ball control in that game.”
Needs improvement: Leesville (1-1), the defending 4A runner-up, lost two of the best defensive players in the area to graduation. Both Kati Stammen (Appalachian State) and News & Observer volleyball player of the year Sasha Karelov (Duke) are liberos at Division I universities.
And so sometimes, the ball fell through that coach Taine Mergenthaler knew one of those two players would have dug out last season.
“(Apex) played smart, they couldn’t beat us at the net so they put the ball over and hoped we would make mistakes. And these girls are so used to Kati and Sasha stepping up that they’re trying to figure out who’s ball is that. What they don’t understand is it’s all of ours,” Mergenthaler said. “Kati and Sasha were their rock. They need to realize that they’re each other’s rock.”
Leesville also struggled to serve against Apex, which had 14 aces with junior Coral Kazaroff (five), senior Chasey Gelston (three) and junior Maddy Comito (three) leading the way.
On the plus side for the Pride, Mergenthaler said the team is better at the net than last year.
Putting up numbers: Leesville’s Samara Brown, a North Carolina A&T recruit, and Sarah Kelly each had nine kills while fellow senior Dana Worthy had four and junior Rebecca Rice had seven. They combined for 11 blocks.
Apex’s Beckman, a Georgia Tech recruit, had 13 kills, 28 assists and 13 digs.
Sophomore Abigail Veit had 12 kills, and junior Anna Patrick had 11.
Senior Brianna Belicic had 30 digs. Gelston added 20 assists.
Looking ahead: Mergenthaler was OK with the loss.
“We never tried to go undefeated last year. We didn’t try to go and beat everyone 3-0, it just kind of happened. This is a fine loss I wish we had won, but we needed a wake-up call,” he said. “You come back from the state championship, and everyone’s going to give you this.”
Blake: 919-460-2606; Twitter: @JMBpreps