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Chapel Hill headed back to 3A volleyball championship

In this gym, months ago, the seniors on the Chapel Hill volleyball team set a goal: to return to the 3A championship match stage that evaded them a season ago.

When they reached that goal Tuesday night, in a five-set thriller of a match against D.H. Conley, their reactions varied. Some screamed. Some cried. Some ran toward family, others toward friends, others toward whatever Chapel Hill fan they could find.

Through it all, though, was joy — the joy that comes with a 3-2 comeback that, in the words of Chapel Hill coach Ross Fields, took “every ounce of blood, sweat and tears we had.”

The top-seeded Tigers are headed to Fayetteville on Saturday as the NCHSAA East Regional champions, where they’ll play West Henderson for a chance at their first state title since 2003. And to get there, they knocked out the Vikings — who’d done the same to them a year ago in this same regional final.

“It was a big revenge thing,” senior Courtney Zwikker said. “So emotional. I knew I was going to cry if we won or lost. This is our last game in this gym. Beating them was just icing on top. It was so much fun.”

The Tigers held late leads in the first two sets but dropped both, 25-22 and then 25-23, after unforced errors at “the most critical moments,” Fields said. In a huddle before the third set, however, he noticed something: the mistakes had only deflated the gyms. His players, he said, were in “believe mode.”

Zwikker said that confidence came from a 2017 playoff quarterfinal match against Conley — the first her senior group played against the Vikings. They trailed 14-9 in the fifth set and came back to win, 16-14. If they did it then, she said, then why not now?

So, point by point, the Tigers chipped away. Kaya Merkler racked up kills, Caroline Wright dove all over and the team made one opportune defensive play after another. On the brink of elimination, they forced a fifth set with 25-19 and 25-23 wins.

“If you lose the first quarter in basketball and you’re down 20, you’re down 20 the rest of the night,” Fields said. “In volleyball, you’re only down one set … that’s how we approached it.”

In the final set, the teams tied at 8-8 before the Tigers ripped off a quick 5-0 run. Minutes later, a final block attempt from Conley skipped out of bounds, giving Chapel Hill a 15-13 win and triggering pandemonium.

“They were not losing tonight,” Fields said.

Records: Chapel Hill 26-1, Conley 25-5

Three who mattered

Kaya Merkler, Chapel Hill: The UNC commit had a team-high 15 kills.

Courtney Zwikker, Chapel Hill: The senior had a great all-around night: two serving aces, six blocks and seven kills.

Maddy May, D.H. Conley: The Vikings’ sophomore team captain, who plays outside hitter, was her team’s main offensive threat.

Worth noting:

  • The Tigers’ two state championships, in 1994 and 2003, came when they were a 4A school.
  • Tuesday was the first time Conley had played more than three sets in the 2019 playoffs. The Vikings swept their previous four opponents.
  • Zwikker’s father, Serge, played four years of basketball at UNC under coach Dean Smith. The 7-foot-3 former center was in the bleachers to cheer on Courtney and Ellen, his two daughters on the team.