Princeton’s volleyball team did three things in Saturday’s NCHSAA 1A state championship match. Two of those things were first. The third thing enabled the Bulldogs to do something they have never done before, win a state volleyball championship.
Princeton won its six set of the playoffs when facing elimination, topping East Surry 15-12 in the fifth set of a match filled with two big swings.
The first came when the Bulldogs — who had trailed in both their fourth and fifth round playoff matches — took a 2-0 set lead (by 26-24 and 25-22 counts). East Surry, a 29-win squad making its first state championship appearance like Princeton, provided the second with dominating victories in the next two sets (25-15 and 25-14).
When it counted the most, Princeton’s two trademarks — a never say die attitude and relentless defense — prevailed.
“We’ve been able to get touches on almost everything,” said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow. “That’s us: somebody keep it alive, somebody chase it down and keep the point alive playing together, helping each other as a team.”
The Bulldogs did that as a unit at Reynolds Coliseum. They finished with 104 digs as a team, led by the 29-dig performance of Jenna Woodard and Taylor Carroll’s even two dozen.
Princeton (23-4) kept ball after ball alive in the fifth set, forcing eventual miscues by the Cardinals’ talented front line. Senior Kacie Markle led East Surry with 15 kills, but her strong hits kept getting returned in the fifth set.
Bulldogs’ senior middle hitter Kasey Edwards (nine kills) called the Cardinals’ front line the toughest she’d ever played against.
“Taylor and Jenna had to adjust to her (Markle) attacks,” Renfrow said. “We had a hard time figuring her out, then we started setting up off our middle blocker’s shoulder and keeping the ball alive.”
Up 9-7 in the deciding fifth set, the Cardinals set up Markle for kill attempts twice but both times Princeton’s back line dug the ball out. The point ended with a kill by Carroll. The Bulldogs had just three winning kills in the fifth set, but didn’t let the Cardinals have more than one scoring run of consecutive points.
“We have a very good defense,” said Princeton senior setter Charley Cox. “That’s what has kept us going the whole time. And it’s all because of Coach Renfrow. She hits the ball as hard as she can in practice every day against us and we have to pick those up.”
Cox was a fitting championship match MVP. She finished with 27 assists. And on 116 total touches of the ball in the match she made just three errors.
Princeton trailed for much of the first set — by as many as six points twice — but found its offense with Kelsey Peedin, Carroll and Edwards picking up kills to pull Princeton ahead 22-21. East Surry came back, going up 24-23 before Princeton fought off the set point with a winning tip at the net. The Bulldogs kept the ball alive long enough on the next two points until Cardinal mistakes (a kill that sailed long and a carrying call) ended the set.
Princeton and East Surry traded the lead for much of the second set with Princeton leading by as many as four points and East Surry by as many as three. The Bulldogs pulled ahead for good on an ace by Emily Ricks at 19-18. Hailey Wood and Carroll combined on a winning block on the next point. Ricks explored ace land again, painting the back service line for a 21-18 lead. The Cardinals never got within two points of the Bulldogs again and Edwards finished off the set with a kill.
Taking a two-set lead put the Bulldogs in an odd spot, but one they didn’t want to be in.
“I think it helped us to be up two sets,” Renfrow said. “It showed us that we could do this. We needed to see that we could beat a team like East Surry.”
The Cardinals, who had played only one match to five sets all season, roared back in the next two sets. Cheyenne Kota had four of her 10 kills on the match in the third set, 25-15, victory.
The fourth set saw East Surry turn a 7-all tie into a 20-11 bulge with a very balance offensive attack. Princeton showed a little life in the late stages with kills from Carroll and Peedin, but Markle responded with one of her big blasts to help close out the set.
The momentum all appeared to be on the Cardinals’ side, but Princeton was right where it wanted to be: down to its last chance.
“It’s not Princeton volleyball without a fifth set,” Cox said. “I told myself all season that there would be only one way to go out,” said Cox, a three-year senior starter. “We’ve been here (deep in the playoffs) too many times to let this opportunity get away. I wasn’t going to go out without a win.
“Being named MVP was a complete shocker. We’ve all gotten better and more experience each year.”
It was the eighth match with a fifth set the Bulldogs had played this season and their fifth win in such a situation. And yet another occasion where Princeton was a set loss away from its season ending and responded with a championship effort.
“I’m proud that we made it the final step and finished it,” Renfrow said. “The girls gave everything in their hearts. We won the first two sets, they came back the next two but we didn’t give up. We were digging everything in the fifth set.
“I feel like this team has played very well on the road and playing five sets here isn’t something that would affect them. It’s been a remarkable run.”