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NC’s ‘Magnificent Seven’ in line for another region volleyball title

Posted: October 4, 2017 2:23 p.m.
Updated: October 6, 2017 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL’S MCKENNA ARRANTS (13) goes over Buford’s Paige Davis for a kill during Tuesday’s Region 4-AA match inside The Castle in Boonetown.

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Don’t go handing the Region 4-AA volleyball championship trophy over to Buford just yet.

With a seven-player roster which includes one junior, four sophomores, a freshman and an eighth-grader, North Central’s margin for error is slimmer than slim. The abundance of young players, however, has not lowered the bar for Lady Knights head coach Andy Johnson whose girls are right back in the thick of things when it comes for a conference title.

Rallying from an 8-3 deficit in the fifth and deciding set on Tuesday, North Central avenged its lone 4-AA loss of the season with a 20-18 victory over visiting Buford to move into a tie atop the five-team circuit’s standings along with the Lady Yellow Jackets.

Earlier this season, Buford downed NC (11-2, 9-1 in 4-AA) in five sets. Playing in front of a large crowd inside The Castle for thre rematch, the hostesses turned the tables in a 27-25, 18-25, 19-25, 25-17, (20-18) victory.

NC has a pair of conference matches left as does Buford (9-1 in 4-AA) but one of the Lady Jackets’ final two league pairings is next Tuesday against a stubborn Andrew Jackson squad. Should the Lady Volunteers upend BHS and NC take care of its business, it would deliver another region crown to the Lady Knights. Should the two front-runners tie, there will be a one-match tie-breaker at a neutral site.

Johnson, whose teams have won conference titles in 10 of the last 11 years, said he did not expect Tuesday’s match to go the distance, not with the way hsi team had been playing recently.

“No, I really didn’t,” he said in a refreshing display of honesty. “We have been playing well over the last two and a half weeks. We really have improved overall as a team and individually. I was just disappointed a couple times when we made mistakes that we should have made.”

Like they did at Buford, the Lady Knights struggled in the opener after having held at 15-8 advantage before adding to it later by a point at 19-11. The visitors, however, staged a 12-4 comeback to knot things at 23. A kill from NC eighth-grader Alayna Johnson --- who had 26 on the night --- evened the set at 24. Johnson closed the opener with a shot which, on the return, bounced off a bank of lights to give the home side the two-point win.

“We went up big at their place,” Johnson said of the first meeting with Buford. “We went up 12-3 in the first set and they came back to win it. We went up big tonight and they came back, again.”

Buford righted its ship in the second set, jumping to a quick 7-2 lead which forced Johnson to burn a time out. He called another one when the BHS advantage grew to 14-7. NC would close the gap to 20-15 and then, 22-18, but never seriously threatened.

The visitors broke away from NC in a third set which was knotted at six. The Lady Yellow Jackets would later pull away for a 19-12 advantage and would go on for the six-point win to take a 2-1 lead in the best-of-five match.

“Give Buford a lot of credit,” Johnson said, “they don’t let a lot of balls hit the ground. They keep us on our toes out there. Sometimes, that ball is coming back over on the first or second contact and it keeps you out of your rhythm. That’s something which takes some adjusting to on the court on our part.”

NC regained the momentum in the fourth set. With the set even at 1-1, Peyton Holley stepped to the service stripe and remained there for eight straight points. The sophomore Libero had consecutive aces on points three and four while a Johnson kill made it 5-1.

Buford chipped away at the deficit and closed the gap to 20-17 before the Lady Knights went on a 5-0 closing run capped by Rhi Hendrix’s deep shot which was not returned.

The Lady Knights struggled in the opening stages of the scheduled 15-point tie-breaker. A carry call gave the visitors an 8-3 lead. A Hendrix block evened things at nine before BHS sent a return of a McKenna Arrants serve into the net to put the home side ahead, 10-9. The Lady Yellow Jackets could not close the deal after leading 14-12 as a Johnson kill extended the contest.

NC used a push shot from Johnson to even things, again, at 14. The Lady Knights were serving for the win, at 16-15, only to see Buford tie it up. With the set level at 18, Buford was whistled for a carry as Arrants took to the stripe. The team’s lone junior served up the capper when a return shot from Buford’s Hunter Allen sailed long.

“I’ve said this for years,” Johnson said after the emotional victory, “in the game of volleyball, it doesn’t matter if you’re playing Penn State, the U.S. Olympic Team or the second grade elementary school, you have to take care of the ball when it’s on your side of the net. That’s one thing that we’ve been stressing to our players over the last three weeks; unforced errors. If we can keep those down to three or four because, you’re going to have some errors, but when they get up in to the teens, that’s when we have real problems.”

In addition to her 26 kills, Alayna Johnson had 19 digs, two aces and an assist. Arrants provided the winners with a solid 1-2 punch at the net with a dozen kills, a pair of blocks and an ace. Sophomore Madison Dixon added seven kills and 20 digs with classmate Aaliyah White piling up 44 assists to go along with 18 digs and a kill.

Holley, a sparkplug who seemed to be everywhere on the floor, had 27 digs with four aces and a pair of kills and assists each. Sophomore Tierra Preston had 20 digs, two kills, an ace and an assist while Hendrix, a freshman, sent down three kills while adding a pair of blocks and a dig to round out the stat sheet for the Lady Knights.

With only one player sitting alongside himself and assistant coach Nicole Gainey, Andy Johnson smiled when asked about his gritty squad.

“We don’t have any subs,” he said with a laugh. “It makes for challenging practices but I’m telling you, the seven that I have give me everything that they’ve got. They work hard every day and they get tons and tons of reps in practice. They have great spirits and great work ethics. 

“I’m just proud of them because when you have seven players and no subs, you can’t be hurt or be sick. We’ve had girls play when they were sick … I’m just so proud of them, especially given our small numbers.”

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