Princeton fell in a two-set hole for the first time in the NCHSAA 1A volleyball playoffs Saturday at Pender County High School and things looked dire.
It would have been easy to chalk that up to too many miles logged (about 650 of them) on Johnston County Schools’ mini activity bus No. 8200 in the previous four days while making three road trips in the playoffs. But that wasn’t the problem.
The Bulldogs were simply playing scared, they admitted, after they rallied for a 20-25, 15-25, 25-17, 25-16, 15-12 victory over Pender County to advance to another regional championship match.
The final three sets were quite the flip from the first two where Princeton couldn’t figure out what to do against Pender senior 6-foot-2 hitter Brianna Pittman. Pittman dominated the net with kills and blocks.
But the main problem as Princeton saw it wasn’t Pittman.
“We made up our mind that we were going to play our game after that second set,” said Princeton coach Paige Renfrow. “We played scared in the second set. We relaxed and played the way we play, Princeton volleyball.”
The Bulldogs (21-4) earned a fourth shot at Carolina 1A Conference rival and champion Lakewood in the regional championship match with the victory. The Leopards handed Princeton three of its four losses this season.
Against Pender, Princeton jumped out to a 7-2 lead in the second set before Pittman took over, carrying the Patriots (18-8) on a 16-3 scoring run that sealed the set and — as it appeared at the time — the match.
The Bulldogs wouldn’t let that happen, though. They started working their attacks around Pittman and kept plugging away even when she did get a solid hit on the ball. Pittman bounced a kill attempt off of the head of Princeton senior middle hitter Kasey Edwards with Princeton holding a precarious 13-11 lead in the third set.
Edwards kept the ball, after it hit her on top of the head, alive on the point and the Bulldogs got the ball back over the net.And when they got the chance to attack Edwards was right there with the point-winning kill. She would finish with a team-high 14 kills on the night and five blocks.
The point was the perfect example of Princeton playing without the fear element.
“That was all our coaches,” said junior outside hitter Taylor Carroll of Renfrow and assistant coach Paula Wooten. “They wouldn’t let us play scared anymore. We got behind each other and played our game.”
Princeton stayed in control the rest of the third set, which ended with a winning cross-court kill from the back line by Kelsey Peedin.
In the fourth set, Princeton never trailed after taking an 11-10 lead and finished out the set (25-16) with Hailey Wood on a five-point service run with Carroll providing much of the attack on the front line.
Carroll had 11 kills on the night, most of them the cross-court variety.
“That’s always the case with Taylor,” Renfrow said. “She’s there when we need her. But that’s just part of us playing as a team of six instead of relying on one person. What makes us good is that we can use all six of our players to win. That’s Princeton volleyball.”
Princeton led four times early in the fifth set but the Patriots wouldn’t let the lead stick until the 11-10 mark when a well-timed Edwards tip forced a carry on Pender’s side of the net.
Two more Patriots’ errors followed (a kill sailed just wide and they were called for being in the net) to put Princeton up 13-10. After a serve into the net, Princeton forced a game point when setter Charley Cox (37 assists on the night) kept a point alive with a flick over her head and the net that just rolled over. One of Carroll’s cross-court kills followed the next time the ball came onto the Princeton side of the net.
Princeton missed on its next attack, getting Pender within 14-12, but Edwards closed out the match with a kill.