Emily Smith had been head volleyball coach at Athens Drive for less than a week of competition before the Jaguars got her a nice piece of hardware.
The Jaguars had little trouble defending a title they had won last season under Jennifer Reeder, topping Cleveland 25-21, 25-18, 25-17 Saturday to win Garner’s Trojan Volleyball Tournament.
“We were just on top of everything today,” said Smith, whose team improved to 2-1. “We worked hard on communicating during practice, and not only encouraging each other but building our skill level with every ball. They exemplified that today.
“I thought we played against some great competition. We were trying to run with them. Kendall Yount, Sydney Yount, Morgan Cheek, Claire Campbell, Allison Lake and Alex Porter all really played well.”
The win was the Jaguars’ second of the day over a team from the Two Rivers 3A, as they had taken out South Johnston 25-18, 25-18, 25-19 in their semifinal matchup.
“This is a big honor,” said Jaguars senior captain Kendall Yount, named the tournament MVP. “We didn’t want to underestimate anyone here and we were ready for anything. Our defense was really on point and our service was better than normal, and our hitters put it away.”
South Johnston beat Garner - which has won five straight championships in the Greater Neuse River 4A but is trying to make up for some huge graduation losses from last season - 23-20, 25-22, 25-18 in the consolation match. Both schools are nicknamed “Trojans.”
Cleveland (3-1) had topped Garner 25-16, 20-25, 25-17, 25-8 to advance to the final.
“We played a great team, a great 4A school that’s very talented,” said new Rams coach Shelley Johnston, who coached softball at Green Hope last year. “Their girls are in Triangle Volleyball Club and mine are from the country and don’t play that stuff.
“There’s a huge difference between 3A and 4A. We became a better team today. My girls played really hard. They started doing things they hadn’t been doing. They’re communicating more and hitting the ball down more.”
Cleveland junior middle hitter Alexis Ivey said she liked the way her team played.
“We came out and did pretty well today,” Ivey said. “We could have finished a little better. We had watched (Athens Drive) before and knew what we were up against, but we did a lot of things well.”
None of South’s current players had ever beaten Garner until this week. South (3-1) beat visiting Garner in three games in its season opener on Aug. 19.
“We lost eight seniors from last season’s team, so we’re rebuilding a little bit,” South coach Matthew Adams said. “We’re young and we’ve got some girls who are stepping up. It’s going to be a work in progress, but even when we lost to Athens it was competitive.”
South played all but the first point of the third set without senior captain and setter Kathryn Lee following an ankle injury.
“She has already had surgery on that ankle,” Adams explained. “But everyone stepped up and we won that set.”
South’s senior captain Madison Byrd said the third-place finish was a solid showing for her team.
“We played well,” Byrd said. “But obviously we could play better. We competed well against Athens Drive, and we played through adversity when Kathryn got hurt. We had some big graduation losses, but we’re using the talent we have pretty well. We’re passing well, and I’m really excited for the season.”
Garner (0-4) has no returnees from last season’s team on the back row, and last season’s seniors Kaasha Jeffries (UNC Pembroke) and Courtney Weathersbee (Lees-McRae) are now playing college volleyball.
“We’ve got girls who have never played the back row and are having to play the entire game,” Boyette said. “It’s a work in progress. The scoreboard may not show it yet, but we’re improving a lot. We won a set today and that was our first of the year. When we get into a good rhythm, we’re playing well. It’s all about passing.”
Garner’s junior middle hitter Alisha Josey said she sees room for optimism.
“We definitely improved today,” said Josey, who played JV last season. “The girls worked hard, but it just didn’t work out. We lost a lot of really good players off last year’s team. We just need to start working better as a team and playing for each other.”