Shiny new venue, same level of chin-to-the-floor intensity.
That was the theme of Saturday’s annual Trojan Invitational Volleyball Tournament, which marked the first-ever sporting event staged at the new South Garner High School Gymnasium.
Harnett Central made a bit of history by claiming the title in to-the-wire fashion, and erased some of its own negative spike narrative in the process.
“This is my favorite tournament to play in,’’ said Harnett Central coach Jason Harrell of the four-school format. “But we really haven’t done very well in it the last few years.’’
Included in that skein was a last-place finish in 2015. But Harnett Central was the last Trojan standing after Saturday’s finale as Harrell’s club was more than happy to rush toward Garner coach Jason Boyette to accept the title plaque.
“I think we’ve probably earned this more than any other team,’’ said Harnett Central senior hitter Kayla East. “We’ve been through a lot together and are really maturing together as a team. It was nice to be able to do this after how we played last year.’’
East offered service winners on the first fourth points of the decisive fifth set, and Harnett Central never trailed the rest of the way en route to securing the 19-25, 25-17, 25-16, 23-25 and 15-4 triumph over Garner, which is competing at South Garner this season while the Garner campus is being rebuilt.
“This was really big for us,’’ said Harrell, whose squad improved to 2-1 overall. “We were coming off some lackluster performances in our first match of the season (a loss to Fuquay-Varina) and some of our (scrimmages). We have struggled defensively, but we were able to play better defense (Saturday), which in turn got some of our big hitters involved.’’
Still, Harnett Central was challenged by Garner (1-3), which rallied to take the fourth set thanks to some nifty late work from Shaylynn Hall and Sanaa Lanier, including Lanier’s back-row blast for a clean kill on set point at 25-23.
Garner looked to have the momentum -- an assessment that was compounded by the fact that Harnett Central was featuring a young club with one freshmen, two sophomores and two juniors in its rotation.
Still, Harrell had a bit of confidence heading into the first-to-15 finale, mainly because East, his best server, was starting out the set from behind the back stripe.
“Going into that last set, I was just trying to encourage our girls,” Harrell said. “With our group as young as it is, you have to be that way.’’
Harnett Central responded to Harrell’s words as East rattled of four straight points, three of which came on aces.
“We didn’t play five sets to lose,” East said. “There is pressure during any part (of a match). I just tried to think that it wasn’t up to me, but everyone on our team. I wanted to help us get back (ahead).”
Garner drew back to 4-3 off a trio of serves from Kacie Meekhof, but Harnett Central would respond with an eight-point flurry that featured three kills from Camryn Huber, who would later be selected as the Tournament Most Valuable Player.
“We just had to come back (after the fourth set) and keep playing hard,” Huber said. “We’ve got a bunch of players who have really grown together. We are a lot closer as a group (as opposed to last year).”
Huber would finish with 22 kills, while East chipped in with 14 blasts. Libero Searria Fisher helped keep Garner’s talented front line from dominating by delivering a whopping 42 digs.
The tournament was formed four years ago by Boyette, who is long-time friends with South Johnston skipper Matthew Adams. They are also well-acquainted with Harrell, who is a Garner alum. And when Pine Forest was added to the mix, the event had a true ‘Trojan’ feel, as each school utilizes that City of Troy mascot.
“We didn’t win, but we saw a lot of good things today,” Boyette said. “We saw a lot of things that we can build on. We’re kind of young and still learning with two sophomores and one freshman (on the varsity). We are still adjusting to each other.”
After the championship plaque was presented and players and coaches had grabbed their belongings, Harrell and Boyette shook hands one final time.
“We will see you guys in three weeks,” Boyette said, referring to the squads’ first of two meetings in the competitive Greater Neuse River 4A Conference.
In the consolation round, South Johnston rebounded from an earlier loss to Harnett Central by stopping Pine Forest 25-9, 25-13 and 25-21. Selena Flores paced South Johnston with nine kills.
Harnett Central def. South Johnston 25-16, 25-20 and 25-17
Garner def. Pine Forest 25-6, 25-6 and 25-8
South Johnston def. Pine Forest 25-9, 25-13 and 25-21
Harnett Central def. Garner 19-25, 25-17, 25-16, 23-25 and 15-4