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Breakthrough! Chapel Hill girls’ volleyball team captures 3A state championship

Chapel Hill players celebrate after receiving the trophy for winning the state championship. The Chapel Hill Tigers defeated the West Henderson Falcons 26-28, 25-20, 25-23 and 25-11 in a high school volleyball match for the NCHSAA 3A championship on November 9, 2019.
Chapel Hill players celebrate after receiving the trophy for winning the state championship. The Chapel Hill Tigers defeated the West Henderson Falcons 26-28, 25-20, 25-23 and 25-11 in a high school volleyball match for the NCHSAA 3A championship on November 9, 2019. newsobserver.com

The wait is over at Chapel Hill.

The Tigers put aside close calls the past three seasons to win their first N.C. High School Athletic Association state title since 2003 and third in school history. They had finished as the state 3A runner-up in 2016 and 2017 and the East Regional 3A runner-up a year ago.

But this time the season ended as 3A state champions by defeating West Henderson in four games. Chapel Hill rebounded from losing the first game to take three games in row, 26-28, 25-20, 25-23 and 25-11, on Saturday afternoon at Fayetteville State’s Capel Arena.

On the match’s winning point, Kaya Merkler, a 6-3 senior bound for North Carolina, and Courtney Zwikker, a 6-2 senior bound for NCAA Division II Barry University in Miami Shores, Florida., combined for a block.

As the ball hit hard to the floor, Merkler fell to her knees but quickly bounded up to hug teammates. It looked like relief for the Tigers finally getting the monkey off their backs, but Merkler, the finals MVP, and her teammates said it was exhilaration.

“I was so excited for that last point my leg was shaking,” Merker said. “I was nervous, and I’m never get nervous when I play. But I was thinking, ‘This is it. We’re going to win.’ It was really excitement.”

From the outside looking in, the match started as if pressure was handicapping the Tigers. West Henderson opened with underdog energy, running out to a 17-12 lead en route to winning the first game.

But Chapel Hill’s size advantage began to wear down the Falcons in Games 2 and 3. In both games, West Henderson stayed with the Tigers, but once the score reached the pivotal 20s, Merkler and Zwikker both recorded crucial kills or blocks.

In Game 2, Merkler stopped a four-point West Henderson run that had closed the score to 21-20. Her kill shot lifted the Tigers to a 22-20 lead. The next point was a long rally with Chapel Hill scoring when a West Henderson shot was wide. Two more consecutive points ended the game.

In Game 3, Zwikker had a block for a 22-21 lead and Merkler a kill for a 23-21 advantage. The Tigers put away the match with two of the next three points.

By the fourth game, Chapel Hill had stymied West Henderson’s upset hopes. The Tigers opened a 20-8 lead.

“I don’t think it was pressure as much as it was experience,” said senior setter Sam Breschi, who had 36 assists. “We knew how to get here. All we had to do was finish.”

RECORDS: Chapel Hill (28-1) vs. West Henderson (30-7)

THREE WHO MATTERED:

Kaya Merker, Chapel Hill: She finished with 20 kills and two aces.

Courtney Zwikker, Chapel Hill: She totaled eight kills.

Taylor Knott, Chapel Hill: The sophomore had five aces and six kills.

WORTH MENTIONING

Chapel Hill senior outside hitter Julia Charney and West Henderson senior defensive specialist Bailee Ashe of West Henderson were the players honored with NC Farm Bureau Sportsmanship award. Charney recorded six kills.

Chapel Hill coach Ross Fields took over the program when seniors Merker, Zwikkker, and Charney were freshman. In the past three seasons, Chapel Hill lost to D.H. Conley in the 2018 East Regional final, 3-2; lost to North Irdell in the state final, 3-2; and lost to Cox Mill in the state final, 3-0.

Sports reporter Jonas Pope IV covers college recruiting, high school sports, NC Central and the ACC for the Herald-Sun and The News & Observer.
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