The most important set Princeton played against Lakewood this season did not come Tuesday night in the 1A eastern regional championship match. It came on Oct. 15 and the Bulldogs lost it, 15-13.
“We knew what we could do,” Princeton junior Hailey Wood said of playing Lakewood a fourth time. “That loss to them at James Kenan (during the championship match of the Carolina 1A Conference tournament) was the turning point. We saw how close we were to doing it and we knew if we just kept pushing it would happen.”
The set keyed the rise of the Bulldogs in the postseason. A rise that neared the ultimate peak before a packed gym as Princeton claimed their first win in four tries this season against the Leopards, a 25-21, 19-25, 14-25, 15-12, 15-7 victory that moved Princeton (22-4) into Saturday’s state championship match against East Surry (29-1).
“We’ve been coming together more and more since the match at James Kenan,” said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow. “The way we played there, that was the (start of) the peak of our season. We’ve been churning up hill since then.”
In their third straight regional championship appearance, the Bulldogs looked as if they were on the ropes once again when Lakewood moved within a set of the state championship with that 25-14 decision dominated by senior hitters Jordan Tew and Rashyda Parker. The pair got Princeton completely out of its comfort zone and kept Princeton from going on the attack.
But facing an elimination set for the fourth time in the past four days, the Bulldogs completely turned things around in the fourth set. Suddenly the multi-faceted offense was back and every time a big service run was needed, freshman Emily Ricks was there to deliver. Senior middle hitter Kasey Edwards led the Princeton offense, with timely hits from Taylor Carroll (11 kills) and Hailey Wood (9 kills) pushing the Bulldogs ahead 20-11.
“We just always keep playing,” Edwards said. “We know if we stick together and play to our strengths, we’re going to come out on top. That’s the way it’s been the whole playoffs.”
Ricks served out the set after taking over with a 20-12 lead, including a fortunate net cord ace at set point.
The shot forced the third game five of this season between the conference rivals, one that would serve as Princeton’s big breakthrough against the talented Leopards (25-1-1).
Princeton rolled ahead to an 11-0 lead with Edwards destroying any ball that approached her powerful right hand. She had four consecutive kills to take the lead from 7-0 to 11-0.
“We came back together and would not roll over,” Renfrow said. “I felt like we took them out of their game in the fourth set. We were attacking every chance we could. It pulled them out of their attack game.
“To start out that fifth set on an 11-0 run was phenomenal, unreal. The last two sets we got touches on every hit. I’m so proud of their effort.”
Princeton’s Jenna Woodard had a team-high 25 digs on the night, while Kelsey Peedin added 14 and Carroll had 10. Senior setter Charley Cox had 44 assists.
Edwards finished with a team-high 16 kills on the night. “I can’t even explain what this feels like and means,” she said. “I can’t believe we’re going to the state championship.”
The fifth set win moved Princeton to 5-0 in elimination sets in the playoffs. The Bulldogs won three straight after falling behind Pender County in the fourth round on Oct. 25, then took both the fourth and fifth sets after trailing 2-1 against Lakewood.
“The girls have done a phenomenal job coming together as a team,” Renfrow said. “They’ve got the most heart and desire and now we’re going to the state finals. I knew this was our best chance to get there.”