Cardinal Gibbons appeared as poised and comfortable as it had all season.
The Crusaders were playing in their first N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A championship match on Saturday evening, but it was ever as familiar.
From the 3-0 (25-18, 25-15, 25-17) title-clinching victory over Greensboro Northwest Guilford, it would seem the Crusaders stepped on the court and executed what they’ve done through 20 wins on the year.
But believe it or not, they’ve had their challenges, so they had to rely on their experience, talent and volleyball IQ on a championship stage that was very different from their previous six.
This was 4A.
“There’s always moments, I think, in every match, even today, where we have to focus,” Gibbons coach Logan Barber said. Barber wrapped up his sixth year with Gibbons, each ending with a title. “Every match has its own things that have pressure. Sometimes, it’s maybe playing a little bit tougher defense, and you have to be a little better offensively. Some teams block a little better, or whatever it is. We don’t really say ‘We sweat it.’ We find out how to focus on things and overcome them.”
Cardinal Gibbons, which won its seventh consecutive NCHSAA title – six in 3A – Saturday at the Raleigh Convention Center, overcame an early Vikings tie in the first set. The Crusaders (20-3) captured the lead when Emma Longley and Tori Dozier shared a block to make the score 9-8.
Their depth – a 22-player roster – did the rest. Eleven players were part of the Crusaders’ title-winning rotation.
The start of the second set featured five ties that Gibbons found a way out of. They blocked, they attacked, they dug.
Senior libero Mia Fradenburg led the match with 17 digs to earn MVP honors.
“I couldn’t have gotten it without these girls,” said Fradenburg, referring to Gibbons’ other 10 seniors. “It means a lot, but at the same time, it’s a team effort.”
Joining Fradenburg’s energy in the back row was senior Taylor Kurosad, who had been recovering from an ACL tear for most of the season.
She was one of several bench players to join the rotation and contribute. Kurosad added eight digs against the Vikings (27-4) – knee brace and all.
“It’s been a long road back for her,” Barber said. “The way she plays, even in matches like this, I couldn’t be happier to see somebody play like that. It could have been very easy for her to quit.”
When the Vikings worked their way to a 14-14 tie in the third set, Gibbons didn’t give up. The Crusaders didn’t stop swinging or digging or talking or adjusting.
They tapped into the focus needed to win their first 4A title, reeling off a 6-1 run down the stretch.
“They know what this looks like,” Barber said, “and, more importantly, I think they understand the opportunity that they have. They don’t look at the side of how scary it could be but more of you look at it the other way: how awesome could this be if we stepped in here and got this done. That’s what they focused on and what they did.”
Dozier led the match with 33 assists, while senior Briley Brind’Amour charted a game-high 13 kills. Longley added 11.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan