Raleigh Charter had not played a fifth set all season before Tuesday’s 1A Eastern regional championship match against Princeton. The inexperience did not show.
The Phoenix scored the final 14 points of that fifth and deciding set to take a 19-25, 25-17, 22-25, 25-23, 15-3 victory.
Raleigh Charter (23-3) will meet Booneville Starmount (26-6), a three-set winner over Elkin, in the state championship match Saturday at noon in Reynolds Coliseum. Raleigh Charter fell to Hendersonville in last year’s state championship match.
“We just played great and with so much intensity,” said senior captain and outside hitter Joanna Powers who finished with a match-high 23 kills.
The Phoenix, in a rematch of last year’s eastern regional championship, took advantage of Powers’ rotation on the front row in the final set, setting her up for five kills and two winning tip shots on the 14-point service rotation of teammate Emily Hulbert.
“Our serves were much stronger and better positioned,” said Raleigh Charter coach Tania Stafford of the fifth set. “That really helped gets us in our offense quicker.”
With the match even at a set apiece, Princeton (26-2) rallied from a 22-19 deficit to take the third set 25-22. Junior Kasey Edwards got on a roll on the front row to finish the set with five kills in the final six points of the set. Edwards finished with a dozen kills.
Both teams went through lengthy periods of productive offense. For the Phoenix it came when either Powers or sophomore Grace Irvin were on the front row. For Princeton, it was senior standout Savanna Massengill (16 kills) and Edwards doing the most damage.
Massengill had five kills in Princeton’s first set win, then Edwards had five in the fourth set. Powers and Irvin had seven kills each in the second set for Raleigh Charter and a half-dozen each in the fourth.
Phoenix senior middle blocker Clara Leonard credited her team’s defensive play.
“We were letting too many balls hit the ground at times and I caught myself doing it,” said Raleigh Charter senior captain Clara Leonard. “But we were very cohesive in the fifth set. We were all on the same page.”
The Phoenix had to hold off another Princeton surge late in the fourth set to force that fifth set. The Bulldogs led 14-11 before a Powers-filled run of kills pushed Raleigh Charter back in front 20-16. Princeton got within a point at 24-23 before Irvin ended the set with a kill.
“I really thought our best shot to win it came in the fourth set and we let that slip away,” said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow.
Leonard praised the Bulldogs’ play.
“They’re a very talented team and they’re so improved from last year,” she said. “We beat them three straight last year, but nothing about this was easy tonight. You can see how hard they’ve worked.”
Princeton finished the season 26-2.
“We had an almost flawless season,” Renfrow said. “We lost in the fifth round of the state playoffs in the fifth set. When they look back later, they’ll realize what a great season we had.”
The Bulldogs will lose three seniors again this year: hitter Massengill, setter/hitter Jasmine Bombard and outside hitter Tori Paul. The class of 2013 won 78 matches during their four-year run in Princeton.
“We changed a lot of things in the off-season to make us better,” Renfrow said. “It took a phenomenal effort to get back here. We only lost three seniors last season so we felt that was a huge advantage but we wanted to get better. We did that.
“We gave everything we had every time out and that’s what I’m most proud of.”