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All saints day

St. Joseph’s takes down Lady Knights in three sets to capture AA Upper State title

Posted: November 7, 2018 11:00 a.m.
Updated: November 9, 2018 1:00 a.m.
Tom Didato/C-I

NORTH CENTRAL’S TIERRA PRESTON sends a shot between St. Joseph’s Emily Normand (14) and Lauren DeLo (12) in Monday’s AA Upper State finals.

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Contrary to popular belief, there are some chinks in St. Joseph’s armor. But you may need to do some digging in order to find them.

The state power out of Greenville will play for its eighth consecutive state volleyball title --- third in class AA --- thanks to a 25-16, 25-13 and 25-12 sweep of homestanding North Central in Monday’s AA Upper State final.

In a match played before a near full set of bleachers, the host Lady Knights (27-4) held the lead for all of two serves in a contest which took an hour to play. 

In spite of its lofty record which included victories over 5A programs, North Central came into this pairing as the underdog against a visiting Lady Knights’ squad which improved to 32-13 on the season with nine of their setbacks coming at the hands of out-of-state programs. NC head coach Andy Johnson said his team did not come into the match star struck. The bottom line, he said, was that his girls did not take advantage of opportunities when they were presented to them.

 “They’re not a machine out there. They had some hitting errors and some serving errors and things of that sort,” he said of the visitors. “We just didn’t control the ball.

“This was the best team we’ve faced all year. We knew there were certain things that we had to do well. We just didn’t do some of those things that we had planned and prepared for.”

North Central, which had their way along the net throughout most of the season, managed 17 kills in the three sets with freshman hitter Alayna Johnson leading the way with nine. No other Lady Knight had more than a pair. of kills Part of the reason for their struggles up front was due to the presence of 6-foot-2 SJ senior hitter Lauren DeLo, who transferred into the school this season. She teams with 5-foot-9 junior Sydney Nobarak to give the home team fits up front.

In an fairly even start in the first set, NC leveled things at three in the early going when an SJ shot sailed out of bounds. From there, the visitors went on an 9-0 run before the guests were called for being in the net as NC stopped the bleeding to make it 12-4. A trio of SJ miscues with Tierra Preston at the serving stripe drew NC within 14-9.

When his team trailed, 17-10, Johnson called the second of his two allotted time outs and his team went on a 4-3 run with a Rhi Hendrix block finding its way to the playing surface to draw NC within 20-14. SJ closed with a 5-2 surge to put the first and closest set of the evening in the books.

NC trailed, 3-0, to open the match and was forced to play catch-up and stray from its tried and true plan.

“There were only one or two times where we were ahead on the scoreboard,” Johnson said while managing to crack a smile. “Of course, I tell the girls that it’s one ball at a time. We don’t even worry about points. Human nature, though, says they are going to look up at those lights (on the scoreboard) and see what the score was.

“I tried to re-gather them and to re-focus them as quickly and as often as I could and try to get them to focus on us, as opposed to what the score was.”

In a second set which opened as did the first, NC used a soft touch on a shot from senior McKenna Arrants to even things at four. When an SJ return went wide of its mark, things were knotted at 5-5.

The visitors then went on a 12-2 run with DeLo going over the top for a point, leading Johnson to call a second time out with his team trailing, 17-7.

In the final set, NC was within striking distance early on, again. A kill from Alayna Johnson, a freshman hitter, cut the SJ advantage to 3-2.  A trio of aces from DeLo upped the ante to 11-4 before Johnson called a time out to talk to his team.

A pair of SJ errors with Preston at the serving line closed the gap to 11-7. But the host Lady Knights could not sustain the momentum as the visitors were relentless in closing the night with a 14-5 run to advance to Saturday’s championship match with Lower State champion Oceanside Collegiate.

“We knew they were a good team coming into this match,” Andy Johnson said of St. Joseph’s, “but we knew that we could play well, at times, too. There were several spurts where we hurt ourselves. We were just hoping that our performance would have been a little better than what we showed tonight.”

In addition to Alayna Johnson’s nine kills, Madison Dixon, Arrants --- the team’s lone senior ---, and Hendrix had two each. Aaliyah White had 13 assists in the loss.

North Central was making its third appearance in the AA Upper State finals since 2014. The Lady Knights were also the only pure public school, which does not have students from outside its enrollment area, in the AA final four or, in the AA Upper State final four, for that matter. “We can’t control those things. We just play who we have to play,” Johnson said of facing teams which draw from outside their attendance zones.

Johnson spent several minutes talking to his girls emphasizing the positives from another successful season which included NC’s winning all 12 of its Region 4-AA matches without dropping a set in those encounters. There was winning their own 12-team in-season tournament while finishing second in a Sumter tourney dominated by 5A and 4A teams. That came after playing in a high-profile preseason tournament in Charlotte.

There was no reason for his girls to hang their heads, Johnson said.

“I was proud of their effort,” he said. “We have played in three (AA) Upper State championship matches in the past five seasons and I told our girls that they should not take it for granted and, that they are part of something special. Some of them were in middle school, but we include them, as well, as far as what we do.

“We have one more hurdle to get over and, we were hoping tonight was the night we could do that. With coach (Nicole) Gainey, coach (Kristi) Holley and coach (Jill) White, I have the best staff in the state of South Carolina when it comes to volleyball. They are all in and put 100 percent effort in helping our girls. I can’t ask for much more than that.”

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