A bumpy start to the 2014 volleyball season seems to be smoothing out for East Chapel Hill.
After losing four of its previous five matches — including a pair of back-to-back, five-set losses — the Wildcats got back on track last week with a much needed win Wednesday in Wildcat Gym against Chapel Hill. East Chapel Hill (4-7) won that one 25-20, 25-6, 25-13.
“We’ve been struggling with being consistent,” East Chapel Hill coach Michelle Wood said. “So that’s what we’ve been working on in practice recently.”
East Chapel Hill’s start this season wasn’t helped by three matches, and three losses, in two weeks versus Carrboro (10-1).
The Wildcats were taken down 3-1 by Carrboro in both the Chapel Hill Invitational and then in a regular-season match on the Jaguars’ home court. East got tantalizingly close to a win on its third try, when it hosted Carrboro on Sept. 4 — only to lose 27-25, 16-25, 23-25, 25-23, 15-7.
The next night, East fell to Apex, 21-25, 27-25, 21-25, 25-19, 17-15.
“We were right there in both those matches,” Wood said. We just couldn’t get them finished.”
Wood’s Wildcats have worked on the simple things since those losses: passing, setting and just keeping kill shots in-bounds.
East was helped by the return Sept. 4 of senior co-captain Sareena Seelbach from a knee injury. She made 10 kills and served four aces against Chapel Hill, including the last serve in game one, which hit the net and then bounced over at the surprised Tigers’ feet.
“Just having her back gives us some stability and more experience,” Wood said. “She’s been working her tail off in practice. Since she’s just getting back, she’s been focused on all the right things, simple things, like keeping the ball in.”
Seelbach and East senior co-captain Annie Carter were effective on attack at PAC-6 rival Riverside on Thursday, even though the ‘Cats fell in four sets: 28-26, 25-20, 17-25, 25-21. Carter made 22 kills and Seelbach 12 against the Pirates, with Mo Rooker assisting on 28 points.
Defensively, Wood recently moved 6-0 sophomore Grayson Walter from middle- to outside-hitter, where she and 5-10 sophomore Charlotte Van Houtven have proved solid at blocking.
“We’re very happy with what they’ve done up front,” Wood said. “Grayson’s had a couple of blocks in each game since she moved.”
Carter gave Chapel Hill a hard time with her serves, five of them for aces, Tiger coach Jody Brown noted.
“Once Annie got up to serve, that was too much for us,” Brown said. “She’s a wonderful player.”
After East trailed by as much as 7-3 in game one against CHHS, Carter served two aces to get the ’Cats back into the match. With the game tied at 15-15, a Carter spike forced side out, then her ensuing ace put East up 17-15, and the Wildcats never trailed again.
“That shook us,” Brown said. “When you’ve got a young team, it can be hard to stay focused. Once you lose focus, it’s hard to get it back.”
With eight ninth-graders and sophomores on a 15-player roster, Chapel Hill is still learning, Brown said.
“I’m trying to press every button … but when you have three matches a week, there never seems to be enough time for practice,” he said. “It’ll come for us, though.”