Broughton had to rally Tuesday. It was certainly the first time in recent weeks, and perhaps the first time all season the Caps, ranked as one of the top teams in the state, really had their backs against the wall.
But No. 1 seed Broughton (18-0, 14-0 Cap Eight) prevailed, winning the final two sets of a five-set thriller to top No. 16 Leesville Road 3-2 and advance to the third round of the N.C. High School Athletic Association 4A playoffs to host D.H. Conley (20-3) on Thursday.
“I think ultimately we just had to stay more composed than we were,” Broughton coach Jim Freeman said. “Right from the beginning, they were putting pressure on us. We never looked comfortable, not all night, and it’s hard to play well when you don’t look comfortable. We’re super fortunate to squeeze that one out. ... Our kids had to fight as hard as they could possibly fight to come out of that one.”
Leesville Road (13-7, 9-5) had lost to Broughton twice in the regular season. The Pride were swept both times the teams met in Cap Eight play, but Leesville Road didn’t come into the match like an underdog.
“Our team had so much confidence,” Leesville Road coach Erin Hensler said. “Our last match against Broughton, one of our sets went above 25 and the other one was close, and these girls were just so excited for the challenge of playing Broughton again. They were so determined. We prepared so hard, we watched film, we practiced specific things and we played with a lot of pride.”
Leesville Road’s preparation showed throughout the match. Broughton never led by more than five points, but took the first set 25-20.
Leesville would take the next two sets, gutting out a close second set, 25-22, and then never trailing in the third set to win, 25-16. For the first time this season, Broughton, an undefeated team and having only lost five sets all year, was down 2-1 in a match.
The Pride again led for much of the fourth set, leading by as many as five points, but the Caps responded to what could have been the last set of their season, taking a 25-22 win to force a fifth and deciding set. The fifth set was fittingly a back-and-forth battle with the score differential reaching three points only once. When Broughton took an early lead, Leesville Road responded.
“It was crazy,” Hensler said. “They’re the number one team in the state. They haven’t been beaten. The girls were like a kid in a candy shop. They were so happy and so amazed that they were playing volleyball with Broughton High School . We really were pushing hard and we just ran out of time at the end.”
It was Broughton senior Katja Ehlers, who dove into the Caps bench earlier in the match while going for a ball, who came up with the final kill to end the match with a 15-13 win.
Ehlers finished with 12 kills, four aces and 16 digs. Tiana Butler and Kati Smith added 15 and 10 kills, respectively, for the Caps. Smith also contributed 19 assists and 12 digs, and Adria Johnson was a force in the middle with 8 kills and four blocks.
Leesville Road was led by Sydney Wilson with 17 kills and 19 digs. Rebecca Rice and Colby Hopper had five and four block assists, respectively, and Meghan Gasper finished with 38 assists and 14 digs
Freeman said having a full-blown playoff experience could benefit the Caps.
“That was definitely high pressure, a loud environment, the stakes were really high and it was really close, and they had to find a way to score points under those circumstances, which is very difficult,” he said.
“Volleyball is a game of fluidity, so being uptight does not work very well, so we’ll maybe have to do a little better job of just being in the moment and enjoying being there. ... I’m proud of our kids. I’m proud that they kept fighting even when they weren’t comfortable. They could have stopped, but they did not. I think both teams should be proud of themselves.”
For Leesville Road, just two years removed from a state championship appearance and under the leadership of a first-year coach in Hensler, the match set the tone for years to come.
“We’ve worked so hard this season to come to this point,” Hensler said. “This match was an awesome way to end our season and it shows how much work and dedication we put into the season. ... This group was a real a talented group and I know they were really senior-loaded last year, so this year was technically a rebuilding year for us, but I think the girls have really started to establish what Leesville Pride volleyball is going to be about and I hope to be able to continue that tradition.