Marlon Lee told his unbeaten Clayton volleyball team this was “championship week” in the Greater Neuse River Conference.
The Comets took their home court Tuesday needing to beat a young Garner squad before their rematch Thursday at home against West Johnston. Clayton, ranked No. 9 among N&O schools, entered the next-to-last week of regular-season play with one-game lead over West Johnston as a result of defeating the Wildcats in five games earlier this season.
Trouble was, Garner played like the team that heard Lee’s message and Clayton played like it was looking ahead to West Johnston.
Clayton won 3-1, but Garner pushed the Comets in all but the third game. Clayton (19-0, 11-0) survived with wins of 25-23, 24-26, 25-18 and 25-21 over the Trojans (8-12, 5-6).
“We got a little cocky,” said Clayton senior middle blocker Emma Sheldon. “We need to forget this game and move on to the next.”
Clayton was fortunate it didn’t find itself digging out of a 2-0 hole in games. Before Garner won the second game, the Trojans led the opener 23-20. But after a Garner serve into the net, Sheldon put down a kill shot to trim the deficit to 23-22 for the first of four straight points served by senior defensive specialist Cayli Simon to close out the game.
After Clayton won the third game convincingly, Garner rebounded to keep the fourth game close with a 9-9 tie. Clayton opened up a 19-13 lead before Garner rallied again to close the deficit to 20-19.
After a Clayton timeout, Sheldon put down a kill shot for a 21-19 lead. The Comets closed out the match winning four the next six points.
Clayton is seeking its first Greater Neuse title since 2013 when this year’s seniors were freshmen.
“It means everything to us to win a league title,” Sheldon said. “It’s our last time playing together. (The seniors) have been together since we were little. It will be awesome to finish out with a title.”
Garner isn’t winning a conference title this year, but the Trojans are a young squad playing like a threat for the future. Sophomore Sanaa Lanier has led Garner while playing without injured leading hitter Shaylynn Hall, a 5-foot-11 junior.
“We know she’s coming back, but there is no reason we can’t play our best until then,” said Lanier, who finished with 15 kills, six blocks and 13 digs. “We’re athletic. We have ability. We just have to believe in ourselves.”
In addition to Lanier, Garner coach Jason Boyette praised the play of his four freshmen, Madison Moore, Regan Adams, Hansen Adams and Grace Pulido.
“We’re not winning right now,” Boyette said, “but we are playing the best volleyball we’ve played all year.”
THEY SAID IT
“We both got along and played really well together,” said Clayton senior Bailey Perdue. “There are a lot of seniors on this team, so we have good leadership.”