The South Johnston volleyball team remembers what it felt like a season ago when a 13-win Trojans squad finished in fourth place, just a win shy of securing the third and final state playoff berth from the Two Rivers 3A Conference.
Intent on achieving a different outcome this season, South Johnston took a big step towards postseason play with a 3-0 sweep (25-19, 25-23, 25-17) of Corinth Holders Tuesday night.
“That was disappointing last year,” South Johnston coach Matthew Adams said when recalling the Trojans’ fate last season. “We’ve got some seniors that have not been to the playoffs in a couple years. They’re hungry to get there and they have kind of turned it on the second half of our season.”
Two of those seniors, Madison Byrd and Kathryn Lee, were instrumental in securing the three-set victory that propelled South Johnston (13-4, 5-2) to sole possession of second place in the conference with just three league tilts remaining.
Lee did a great job feeding the middle and outside hitters all night to the tune of 32 assists while Byrd used brain and brawn in mixing up her attacks both with kills down the line and cross court.
With the first and third sets mirroring each other in that South Johnston built 14-4 leads and cruised to take both games, the pivotal second set proved to be the main turning point of the match.
Avoiding digging themselves into too big of a hole as in the other two sets, Corinth Holders limited its mistakes in the middle game to construct a 19-16 lead.
Jamie Turner and Kelsie Hocutt took turns in attacking the Trojans’ back line to put the Pirates in great position to even the match.
But three kills from Byrd and a pair from Makaylah Tart spurred South Johnston to the 24-23 lead before a Corinth Holders service error ultimately put the Pirates into a 2-0 hole.
“I feel like we get into position and then we make a mistake,” Corinth Holders coach Charles Riley said. “A serving error at set point, a miss-hit here, not being in the right spot there and we stopped going all out for the ball while watching stuff drop – that’s not how you win.”
In a crowded playoff picture, the Pirates (6-7. 3-4) enter its final three conference games as the team on the outside looking in unless they can secure one of several new wild-card spots opened up by the N.C. High School Athletic Association seeding process. Seeding is new to volleyball this year after having been used in sports like basketball, soccer and football.
There’s not much room for error anymore but Riley says his team needs to fine-tune its mental approach, as he believes his team has the physical skills to compete with anyone.
“We’ve been working on playing every point like it’s game point and it sure didn’t look like that tonight,” said Riley. “Right now, I just don’t think mentally that we’re overcoming mistakes and moving on to the next play.”
Hocutt led Corinth Holders with six kills while Turner added four of her own.
One reason offered by Adams for the team’s success in conference play this season is the number of players making an impact during a match.
Emma Blackman had another big game at the net Tuesday night with eight kills and Selena Flores added a spark from her outside hitter position with five kills.
Reagan Byrd had a great game on the back line, as did Lily Allen, McKinley Johnson and Macy Worley.
“We’ve got a lot of people making plays,” said Adams. “It’s more of a team effort than it has been in the past. That’s why we’re playing well—we’ve got pretty good chemistry.”