East Wake Academy received a much-needed assist from the man in the mirror to secure an important volleyball decision Thursday over North Central Athletic 1A Conference rival Raleigh Charter.
Taking on a Phoenix club that had edged them in five sets earlier in the season, the Eagles dropped the first set in disappointing fashion and fell behind early in the second set before coach Kenly Simmons called an opportune time out.
“I told our players it was simply the man in the mirror thing,” Simmons said. “We had to look at ourselves because we were the problem. We were making mistakes that hurt us and we needed to start cleaning things up. I was trying to put pressure on the players to look at what they were doing. They took it to heart.”
Coincidence or not, East Wake Academy quickly shifted the momentum in the match. The Eagles clawed back to take the second set in tight fashion before convincingly claiming the final two sets as part of a 23-25, 25-23, 25-12, 25-18 triumph at the EWA Gymnasium.
The conquest was the beginning of what Simmons hopes will be a late-year push toward a possible postseason spot for East Wake Academy, which improved to 7-7 overall and 6-5 in the competitive NCAC. And the Eagles’ victory came at the expense of chief rival Raleigh Charter, which slipped to 7-4 (both overall and in the league).
The Phoenix were left holding down fourth place outright in the NCAC behind three teams tied for first place with one loss each – Roxboro Community, Voyager Academy and Franklin Academy. East Wake Academy was tied for the fifth position, but made a major move in the standings with Thursday’s success.
The opening-set loss seemed to deflate the Eagles – at least temporarily. They trailed 11-3 in the second set, and it looked like Raleigh Charter was on the verge of taking charge for good before Simmons’ time out. East Wake Academy trimmed its deficit to 16-12 before senior middle hitter McKenzie Alford literally took over the match with five kills in the 7-point stretch. With the score tied at 23-23, Alford put the Eagles ahead to stay in the set with a kill, and teammate Josie Morton followed with another kill to wrap up the set. East Wake Academy controlled the proceedings from there.
“(During the time out), we talked about how it was all up to us,” Alford said. “We met on-court, and we tried to get the team pumped up and loud. We seemed to really get some confidence from there.”
Said East Wake Academy junior setter Antonia Kearney: “There seems to be a point in every match where we come up with something like a big hit, and it sparks us. I remember getting a set outside and we got a kill. We just said that we weren’t going to lose. There was no reason to roll over and die so early.”
THREE TO KNOW
McKenzie Alford, East Wake Academy: A four-year starter, Alford is affectionately called ‘Big Mac’ by her teammates, and for good reason. A strong net presence, Alford paced the Eagles with 14 kills to go with three blocks and two aces.
“Big Mac is our dynamite,” Simmons said. “She has been our fire in the middle for my three years (as head coach). When it is a big moment, we know who to get the ball to. And another big thing is that (Alford) has now really developed into a good back-row player.”
Maddie Smith, Raleigh Charter: A talented junior with a well-rounded game, Smith collected 11 kills and six aces to pace the Phoenix.
Josie Morton, East Wake Academy: A junior who contributes both up front and along the back row, Morton saved some of her eight kills for when the Eagles needed them the most. She also picked up a trio of aces.
THEY SAID IT
“It’s a mental game,” first-year Raleigh Charter coach Andrea Mewhinney said of her club’s inability to close out the match after moving ahead early. “The No. 1 thing I try to tell the players about volleyball is that it is as much mental as it is physical. The fans seemed to get in our heads, and the other team seemed to get in our heads. But we never gave up and fought for every point. We have a lot of good teams in this conference, but I want to see us make the playoffs, and I believe we can.”
East Wake Academy’s potential fortunes this fall took a hit back in March when expected setter Kearney suffered a torn anterior cruciate ligament during club volleyball season. Wearing a cumbersome brace, Kearney returned to the Eagles’ lineup three matches ago and has made a huge impact – including her sterling performance Thursday.
“I’m still not 100 percent, and I’m not attacking as much,” Kearney said. “My teammates are almost too overprotective of me since I have come back, but it feels so great to be playing instead of watching. It is still a challenge right now not to think about reinjuring myself. But I am just one piece. When we work together and play the way we are supposed to, we can be successful.”
Said Simmons: “I am really proud of (Kearney). We are a different team when she is on the court. This is the first match where she has played all four sets, and she did really well.”
BY THE NUMBERS
3: East Wake Academy is looking for its third straight appearance in the N.C. High School Athletic Association 1A State Playoffs. A loss Thursday would have harmed the Eagles’ chances, but they are still in a position to make the postseason – possibly as a wild-card entrant.
“As a senior, I really want to get to the playoffs for the third time,” Alford said. “And I would love to make it to the second round, because we have never done that.”
29: The Eagles put down 29 kills for the match, with Morton and Alford leading the way but others stepping up at important times.
23: The teams combined for 23 aces – 12 from East Wake Academy and 11 from Raleigh Charter.
8: With the score tied at 10-10 in the third set, East Wake Academy’s Kearney rattled off 8 consecutive service points, including three aces. The Phoenix earned only two more points the rest of the set.