It’s rare that at the conclusion of a postseason match, both participants can leave with their heads held high. After five-time defending N.C. High School Athletic Association 3A volleyball champion Cardinal Gibbons dispatched visiting Cleveland in three sets on Tuesday night, that was precisely the takeaway for both teams.
The Crusaders, who won each set by a 25-13 count, received a little more push-back than they had dealt with for much of the regular season and responded well.
“That was a great team that we played,” said Cardinal Gibbons coach Logan Barber of the Rams. “They fought really hard, they had some good, talented kids over there, you could tell they were well-coached and they didn’t quit.
“So it was really good for us to go out there and answer when we got pushed.”
Cleveland hung close for most of the first set as the Rams limited the Crusaders from stringing together any long runs.
However, up 19-13 in the latter stages of the opening game, Cardinal Gibbons finally found that elusive spurt thanks to a pair of kills from Emma Longley and a Meghan Wilkinson ace, posting the final six points.
The Crusaders took control of the second set, opening up with a 6-0 run and then piecing together a 7-0 run to take a 19-6 lead en route to taking the 2-0 lead.
Cleveland, undaunted, put up the most resistance in the third and final set taking an early 3-1 lead and then closing to within 10-8 after Cardinal Gibbons stormed ahead.
“It’s good for them to see the competition like this to know that they can be good enough to go far into the playoffs,” Cleveland coach Shelley Johnston said. “And I don’t think they thought that until tonight. I’m very proud of how hard they fought and that they played with their hearts.”
Alexis Ivey and Marina Roe started finding some success near the net as the Rams (16-6) attempted the near impossible: winning a set against the Crusaders.
Having just conceded one set all year, Cardinal Gibbons closed the match strong behind five kills from junior outside hitter Briley Brind’ Amour.
The Crusaders (23-0) now turn their focus to the third round and Eastern Alamance, knowing each round presents a test and a chance to get even better.
“I think everybody is understanding their role pretty well and doing what they need to do,” Barber said. “They (Cleveland) brought a crowd and had some energy. It was good for us to play that kind of match right now.”
Longley led Cardinal Gibbons with 13 kills while Brind’ Amour added eight. Tori Dozier totaled 21 assists.
As for the Rams, Walli Driggers led the way with five kills while Krista Haschke and Alyssa Kinney put forth a workmanlike defensive effort on the back line in contending with the Crusaders’ attack.
Haschke, Kinney, Tess Kirk, Katelyn Lowery, Brittney Preston and Roe all played their last volleyball match as Rams, but leave with their heads held high and the young program in a better place than it was when they arrived.
“They have improved just in their physical abilities but I’ve seen tremendous growth with playing with their heart and just really playing the mental game,” Johnston said. “We’ve really struggled with the mental game, just getting down on ourselves but they are overcoming that.
“It’s baby steps and I hate it for these seniors but, as far a program goes, it’s making the program stronger.