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Lady Knights set up Monday night showdown

NC hosts St. Joe’s after shuffling the Cards in 3

Posted: November 1, 2018 11:33 a.m.
Updated: November 2, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL FRESHMAN HITTER Alayna Johnson sends a shot between Landrum’s Sarah Harris (12) and Lilly Wright (9) in Wednesday’s AA Upper State playoff match while her father, NC head coach Andy Johnson, looks on from the sideline.

Andy Johnson would not allow himself to play the role of savant. 

Even though the North Central volleyball coach knew, in his heart of hearts, that his Lady Knights’ opponent in Monday’s AA Upper State title match was, in all likelihood, going to be St. Joseph’s, Johnson was not ready to declare the Greenville power a winner over Region 1 foe Greer Middle College before he received the official result.

All along, however, anybody who has followed volleyball knew St. Joseph’s would be Boonetown-bound on Monday. Wednesday’s final outcome in the Upstate was all but a given.

What was not a lock was NC’s securing the other spot in the AA final four. After a lengthy second round battle with Southside Christian (see story below) on Monday, the Lady Knights (27-3) knocked off another Region 1 program Wednesday in sweeping Landrum, 25-14, 25-21 and 25-16, inside The Castle in Boonetown.

Meanwhile, in Greenville, St. Joseph’s was manhandling conference rival Greer Middle College in straight sets, 25-18, 25-10 and 25-8.

Monday, it will be a Lady Knights versus Lady Knights pairing to see who represents the Upper State in next Saturday’s AA state championship match. Start time for the best-of-five match Upper State finale is 6 p.m.

Shortly after emerging from the locker room following a post-match meeting with his on Wednesday, Johnson was asked if he thought North Central would be facing St. Joseph’s on Monday, even without having heard the final scores from the match.

“No comment,” he said with a smile.

For now, Johnson wanted to enjoy the victory in an Upper State final four pairing in which his girls were the lone non-Region 1 entry still standing. As opposed to Monday’s slow start against Southside Christian, the Lady Knights came out focused and were business-like as the Lady Cardinals held the lead for all of four serves and none after taking a 13-12 lead in the second set.

“We minimized our unforced errors. That’s what hurt us Monday night,” Johnson said. “We talked about that (Tuesday) in practice and we worked on a few fundamental things because, we do fundamental drills every day in practice. 

“I was proud of them. I was proud of the effort and the way we came out tonight.”

Landrum scored the first point of the first set and that would be as close as the Lady Cardinals would get in an opener in which the hostesses used a kill from freshman Alayna Johnson kill to take a 9-7 lead which ballooned to 19-10 after Johnson’s roller along the net dropped in for a point.

From there, the Lady Cardinals were never within striking distance as five consecutive Landrum errors led to the final five NC points in a 10-point first set victory.

“We got off to a good start,” Johnson said of the first set win. “I tell them after the first set to ‘Lose that and erase that from your memory’ and we move on to the next one because the first one doesn’t matter anymore at that point.”

Landrum, which finished fifth in Region 1 and winners of four of their previous five matches coming into Wednesday, showed its grit in the second set. Trailing, 9-5, at one point, the Lady Cardinals came all the way back to even things at 15 when an Elizabeth Pressley shot bounded off the hands of an NC defender for a point. A similar shot from Hannah Maybry, which came on the serve following an NC time out, tied this one at 20.

NC got the lead and the serve back when junior Madison Dixon sent a shot to the floor to make it 21-20. Landrum stayed within one, trailing 22-21, before the visitors were called for a lift. With NC junior Aaliyah White at the service stripe, LHS fired a return into the net before closing the match with a long out of play hit as NC survived the scare and went up, 2-0, with the 25-21 victory.

Johnson said Landrum played like the team he heard the Lady Cardinals were from the scouting reports he received from other coaches whose teams faced the visitors.

“We told our girls that we had a solid team coming in here and that they were very scrappy,” he said. “They played with a lot of heart and a lot of competitiveness to get to where they got. They were a five seed and beat a one seed (Fox Creek) in the first round and then, won in five sets (over Region 1 rival Brashier Middle College) on Monday to get here tonight. That says a lot about the character of their team.”

The combination of Landrum’s having played back-to-back, five-set matches may have led to the Lady Cardinals seeming to have run out of gas in a third set in which NC cruised to a 12-4 advantage. As soon as it looked as if the Lady Knights would play run and hide with the lead, though, Landrum got its second win and trimmed the deficit to 15-10 after a Maybry shot fell which led to Johnson calling a time out to re-set things on his side of the net.

The lead was still at five points, 19-14, before Dixon fired a shot which did not make its way back over the net. A kill from NC sophomore Rhi Hendrix followed and with her team trailing, 21-14, first-year Landrum head coach Taylor Baird called a time out.

NC was unfazed by the stop in play as the Lady Knights scored the final three points with White, again, on the service line to complete a sweep which took some 75 minutes to complete.

“We were better in serve-receive tonight and we had less hitting errors than we did Monday night,” Johnson said. “I was proud of our effort. We didn’t play perfect … the way I would phrase it is that we played good, at times.”

Alayna Johnson led the way along the net with 17 kills while adding nine digs, two aces and a block. White had 20 assists, seven digs and two aces while Libero Peyton Holley had 18 digs, three assists and two aces.

Dixon had seven kills and nine digs while McKenna Arrants had six kills, five digs, a block and an ace. Hendrix added six kills and as many blocks while Tierra Preston had six digs, two blocks and an ace.

Johnson said Landrum hardly fit the mold of being a five seed given the fact that Region 1 is the toughest volleyball conference in class AA. Throw in the fact that the Lady Cards have three class A state championship trophies in their case and this was hardly a match which the Lady Knights could afford to overlook.

“You figure that they come in here and look at seeds and stuff. We don’t pay attention to that,” Johnson said of his girls. “We know that (Region 1) is a strong region for volleyball, that’s for sure, and it doesn’t matter what seed comes to us after what we’ve faced in years past from up there. We know that they’re going to be a good volleyball team.”

There will be another good and better teams coming to The Castle on Monday evening in St. Joseph’s which has won seven consecutive state championships with the last two coming in AA play after having won five straight in class A.

Johnson and his girls know all about the other Lady Knights but in the two days of practice leading up to the match, it will be more about North Central getting better rather than worrying about what St. Joe’s brings to the table.

“We’ll know what their strengths are and, we’ll know what some of their weaknesses are but, it call comes back to us,” Johnson said. “There are a lot of things that you can’t control and one is that you can’t control your opponent. I tell our team that, in volleyball, we have to control the ball when it’s on our side of the net.

“It comes back to our ball-handling in our situation. At our level, it’s the best serving team and the best passing team that usually wins.”

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