The atmosphere was much different for Princeton’s latest visit to Lakewood for a volleyball match than the previous meeting.
Tuesday’s Carolina 1A Conference match was the first meeting between the 2014 state 1A champion (Princeton) and 2014 eastern regional finalist (Lakewood) since their legendary last of four meetings, a five-set thriller where the Bulldogs finally beat the Leopards for the first time in four attempts last season.
Things were a little more orderly as the 2015 rivalry began, with Princeton grabbing a 25-18, 25-20, 25-13 victory before a gym that had about half the noise level and a fourth of the spectators that regional final meeting had.
The victory pushed Princeton (11-1 overall) to 7-0 in the conference and a full two games ahead of the conference field. The Bulldogs have yet to lose a set in league play and have dropped just four sets all season. (3A South Johnston handed Princeton its only loss of the season so far.)
“I liked the way we served,” said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow. “We played a decent game, we could have been stronger.”
Stronger is something few 1A volleyball teams have been when compared to the Bulldogs this decade. Since 2011, Princeton is 17-3 in the playoffs with three regional finals appearances and last year’s state championship.
So if there’s any team prepared to successfully navigate the grind of another regular season following a long playoff run, it’s the Bulldogs.
“I don’t feel like we’ve had trouble keeping our focus week-to-week,” Renfrow said. “They’ve been pretty good at taking things as they come up.”
Although the Bulldogs graduated four players from last year’s state title team they have numerous key returnees back and added a big transfer to the lineup as well.
Adding Daisey Eklund to a lineup that included state championship contributors Taylor Carroll, Emily Ricks, Kortney Edwards, Kelsey Peedin and Hailey Wood among others would be akin to the Cardinals adding Mike Trout to their lineup at the trading deadline this season.
Eklund, whose family moved into the area from Clarksburg, W.V. in the off-season, has fit in rather seamlessly with the Princeton lineup. She leads the team in kills (116), blocks (52) and aces (21) and is one of three jump servers on the squad.
“We’ve added some things this year that we haven’t had before,” Renfrow said. “We’ve got three jump servers with Taylor, Kelsey and Daisey who can get on a roll.”
Carroll had six aces in the win over Lakewood on Tuesday, including back-to-back ones to help Princeton start to pull away in the third set.
All of that power has turned Princeton into more of an offensive-focused team so far. One reason why that’s happened is Beth Braswell (233 assists), who has filled in very capably at what loomed as the potential biggest concern: replacing setter Charley Cox.
“To have such a solid offense this year, we haven’t been putting the focus on defense that we typically do,” Renfrow said. “We’ve started to get back to that defensive focus. We’ve got to be a machine, playing together out there. We’ve been over playing on our zones at times. We know we have to get a lot better.”
As the calendar turns to October and the playoffs loom, nobody knows more how important defense has to become as each week passes than a Princeton team which has built its playoff resume on keeping point-after-point alive and frustrating talented opponents with its lack of mistakes returning the ball.
“As you see everybody else that second time, they know what your weaknesses because they’ve seen you before,” Renfrow said of the second round of conference play. “Every week is a new challenge and the challenge gets bigger each week for every team from here on out.”