West Johnston’s volleyball team threw everything it had in its arsenal at Harnett Central Wednesday night.
Unfortunately for the Wildcats, the Trojans threw everything right back and a little bit more in sweeping West, 3-0 for the Greater Neuse River 4A Conference tournament championship.
Entering the evening on the strengths of upsets over third-seeded Clayton and second-seeded Southeast Raleigh, respectively, the No. 6 seed Wildcats were looking to add a third notch to their belt, as well as a tournament title and a state playoff berth.
But it was not to be for the Wildcats, who completed a 9-14 season with the 25-20, 25-16, 25-19 defeat.
“Everything we did, (the Trojans) were ready for it,” said Wildcats coach Susan Bryant. “I’m so proud of our girls for going from sixth to second. It shows while we have a young team, we have a lot of promise in front of us.”
The promise comes in sophomore Tatiana Thompson, freshman Tessa Starkweather, sophomores Kelsey Ellis and Abby Barbour and junior Kaylea Eubanks, who formed most of the unit that tried to lift West to the most impossible of dreams on the Trojan’s gymnasium floor.
They, along with seniors Charley and Hannah Stephenson, Hannah Cooper and Rhiane Cannon, gave everything they had against the Trojans, and in most matches, probably would have been enough for victory.
But not this night. The No. 4 seed Trojans used an almost impenetrable defense throughout the match, giving a clinic on the art of digging and blocking.
The Trojans, which held off No. 5 East Wake 3-1 in the opening round and shocked top-seeded Knightdale in the semifinals, left fans open-mouthed on several occasions. They used digs, many of them inches off the floor, in their allotted number of hits to return the ball over the net to the Wildcats.
Once instance in the opening set saw the Trojans make six digs on one point and go on to win the point on a kill after the Wildcats had tried three times for a kill of their own.
Harnett Central digs went for points three times, catching the Wildcats flat-footed, and the pressure applied by the front line hitters and blockers Braxton Wright, Maddie Hamilton, Maddie Pentony and Kayla East added frustration.
“We are young,” Bryant said. “And we got rattled by the pressure. We had two big games the past two nights, so we were a little tired.
“And we didn’t have the home-court advantage to urge us on either. But no excuses, we played hard, and we played with heart – a young team with a long way to go, and I am proud of them.”
Trojans coach Jason Harnett, whose team improved to 14-7 in earning the right to represent the GNRC as its No. 2 seed in the NCHSAA 4A playoffs, said the first six points of the match set the stage for the win.
“We came in focused tonight,” Harnett said. “We felt we had not been on our game for the past two-to-three weeks.
“I think we made a real effort to play defense tonight – if that ball looked as if it were going down, we were going after it.”
The Trojans’ defense began asserting itself early in the opening set, sparking a 9-2 run which gave Harnett Central a 14-8 lead.
West battled back behind Thompson, who recorded three kills, a block and a service ace to pull the Wildcats even at 16-all, but served a long ball following a timeout, giving the lead and the ball back to the Trojans.
The Trojans surged behind a trio of kills from Wright and Hamilton added another as Harnett Central pulled away for the opening set victory.
Harnett Central mixed five aces, six kills and several Wildcats hitting errors in rolling to the second set win, then got six kills from Pentony as the Trojans built a 7-point lead that the Wildcats could only close to four points.
Five Greater Neuse River teams qualified for the state playoffs, which began Saturday. Knightdale and Harnett Central each earned the right to host in the first round of the playoffs by finishing Nos. 1 and 2 in the league, respectively.
Knightdale (East No. 7 seed in playoffs) drew a rematch with East Wake, which entered the postseason as the East No. 26 seed. Those two teams split their two regular-season meetings.
Harnett Central (East No. 13 seed) drew an opening round match with East No. 20 Pine Forest.
Southeast Raleigh, which finished second in the GNRC in the regular season, took on the East No. 19 seed and faced a date with East No. 14 E.A. Laney in Wilmington.
Clayton was pinned as the East No. 25 seed, grouped for an opening match at East No. 8 seed D.H. Conley in Greenville.