Perennial conference volleyball champion Triton cemented its hold on first place in the Two Rivers 3A Conference with a three-set sweep over second-place South Johnston on Thursday, but the match was much tighter than the score indicated.
South Johnston (11-4, 4-2 Two Rivers) battled Triton (9-3, 6-0) hard in every set. Triton opened a 12-2 lead in the first set, but won a nail-biter 25-23, then took the second set by a 25-20 margin before going to the wire to win the third set 26-24.
“For the most part we stuck to our game plan and came out on top,” said Triton coach Wendy Gaines, whose Hawks have won 13 straight regular-season conference titles and 12 straight tournament titles. “Just some mental things still, calling the ball and letting somebody get it, not being ready to hit, just things that we shouldn’t be doing now.
“I don’t know if that just showed the amount of pressure they were feeling on this match or they just weren’t mentally focused at times.”
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One thing Gaines did know was that South Johnston was much improved from a sweep at South earlier in the season. The Trojans had won six straight matches coming into Thursday’s rematch with the Hawks.
“They were much better,” Gaines said of the Trojans. “They were more aggressive going after every ball, not giving up, hustling. At times, I told my girls, ‘They want it more than y’all do.’ To me we both had a lot at stake. I don’t want to share a conference championship with anybody and they probably want one.”
South Johnston coach Matthew Adams definitely wanted a share of first place. And so did his team.
“The first time we played (Triton), we didn’t compete,” Adams said. “That was my thing tonight, I wanted us to compete. We did compete but things just didn’t go our way once in a while. When you lose two out of three sets by two points, it’s just tough. If one of those sets goes the other way, it’s a different mindset, everything.
“They are a good team. I think we are a good team. In the key moments at the end of the sets, we pushed the ball over a little bit too much and weren’t swinging aggressively and that cost us. … I think that was the difference.”
Triton lost nine seniors from last year’s squad and starts three sophomores.
Sophomore Taylor Gainey led the Hawks with 10 kills. Demarshay Devane had eight kills and two blocks and Dahlia Guin also had eight kills.
“Just having one player out there who played a lot last year (Erica Parker), I am really proud of the way the girls are playing right now,” Gaines said. “I have four sophomores on the varsity and two more who are playing very well on the JV team. It’s exciting to see maybe what the future may hold for us.”
South Johnston was led by senior Madison Byrd with 13 kills. Junior Emma Blackman had 11 kills and six blocks.
In the first set, the Trojans rallied to pull within 24-23 but served into the net to give the Hawks a 25-23 victory.
“We made a valiant effort to rally in the first set, but short serves hurt us,” Adams said. “We played from behind all night.”
South Johnston took its first lead of the match at 10-9 in the third set and led by three points at 17-14. Triton pulled even at 17-17 and the score was tied at 18, 19, 20, 21 and 23.
South Johnston led 24-23 with the serve, but Triton won the next three points.
Triton was serving with the score at 24-24 and got a point when a South Johnston spike went wide to go up 25-24. Triton’s Erica Parker made a perfect tip shot at the net for the final point and a 26-24 Hawks victory.
“I was really proud of our effort tonight,” Adams said. “I thought we blocked pretty well tonight, played team defense, communicated well.”
But he could only shake his head after the hard-fought battle that once again saw the Trojans come up short against Triton.
“I just really tired of losing to (Triton), bottom line,” Adams said. “I think we’ve had a good enough team to beat them before and I think we do now, and it’s just not happening. It’s like a curse, like the Red Sox, the Cubs, all these teams that have ‘curses.’ I think we have one against Triton.”