Two teams trying to find themselves after hot finishes to last season met in the Southwest Wake Athletic Conference opener, with Fuquay-Varina showing a bit more advancement with a 3-0 (25-16, 25-20, 25-14) victory on the road at Athens Drive on Tuesday night.
Fuquay won nine of its final 10 final regular-season games and advanced to the third round of the state 4A tournament, while Athens won eight in a row to close out the regular season before falling in the first round to Leesville Road.
The Bengals (5-0, 1-0), ranked No. 20 in The News & Observer area, have become a more spread-out team with the graduation of powerful outside hitters Morgan and Maddie Sonnendecker, while the Jaguars (1-2, 0-1) are trying to build a foundation around middle hitters Allison Lake and Claire Campbell after graduation five starters from last year.
“We have different attacks: we’re not just all outside,” Fuquay coach Jeff Pagel said. “We have middle presence, we have right side, we have outsides, so we have a lot more outlets on the court. We’re very consistent. Defense, we get balls up, and on offense, we can put balls away.”
Athens coach Emily Smith is still trying to build her team’s confidence, preferring to focus on “small victories.”
“We’re definitely rebuilding,” Smith said. “We’re definitely feeling the momentum swing with that.”
Athens jumped to an 8-3 lead in the first set behind two kills from the junior Campbell. But Joanna Petterson’s service game got the Bengals within one, 8-7, and Fuquay later took command with Petterson serving again, reeling off five consecutive points for a 21-15 lead before winning 25-16.
“Game 1, we started slow because we patty-caked the ball over, and I got mad,” Pagel said. “The first timeout, I said, ‘We have a very tough serving team.’ I don’t care if we (get) four points in a row and miss a serve – that’s four points vs. one, rather than just getting the serve over and them slamming it down on us.”
THREE TO KNOW
Nora Smith, Fuquay: The senior had 11 kills, including five in a 25-20 second-set victory.
Campbell, Athens: Campbell was a force in the Jaguars’ middle, getting eight kills and combining with Lake to record 14 of Athens’ 20 kills.
Joanna Petterson, Fuquay-Varina: Her three first-set aces turned the match around, and her serving helped keep Athens’ passing game off-balance.
THEY SAID IT
“We’re ready to fight and win,” Fuquay’s Smith said. “We just want to win. We’re hungry.”
PUTTING UP NUMBERS
Bryona Spence, Alyah Barkley and Deja Byrd each had five kills for Fuquay, while Ava Cunningham had three kills and two aces.
The Bengals have an entirely new offense for this year, with the attack coming from all over the court. They spread the ball out well against Athens, getting kills from outside and middle hitters.
“We’re being patient,” Nora Smith said. “We’re spreading out the ball very well on the right side, middle and outside, which is very different than we have in the past. Usually, we have very strong hitters on the outside, and we only get it to the outside, so that’s different, and it’s working for us.”
Getting the ball to Lake and Campbell will be crucial to Athens’ success, and it starts with receiving serves. The Jaguars have made improvement, Emily Smith said, but Fuquay had eight aces Tuesday.
“We’re still trying to find our rhythm with each other and find our momentum,” Smith said. “We have some really good power on offense, and those players are also versatile enough to play all the way around. Being able to get the three-option ball to the setter is going to have to be our main focus going forward to build a solid foundation.”
OUT OF BOUNDS
Athens junior hitter Julia Hader sang the national anthem before the match, as she’ll do for all Jaguars home matches this season.
“She’s incredible,” Smith said. “This is my third year with her in the program, and I didn’t even know she could sing like that until late last year. She’s incredible.”