It was almost as if the officials at Tuesday’s AA Upper State championship volleyball match between North Central and host Liberty wanted to see how much emotional stress the visiting Lady Knights could handle.
After the two sides traded wins in the first four sets with NC taking the first and third, 25-18 and 25-19, while Liberty won the even sets by similar 25-18 and 25-19 counts, the stage was set for the first to 15 tie-breaker in which a team had to win by two or more points.
With the Red Devils leading in the fifth set, 15-14, NC was whistled for four hits, thereby ending the match with the hostesses, seemingly, headed to Saturday’s state finale against 14-time defending state champion Bishop England. There was one problem, however. The Lady Knights only hit the ball three times, a fact which which NC head coach Andy Johnson and his staff pleaded to the four officials to rethink.
With his team crying in believing their season was over, a meeting between all officials overruled the head official and the point was replayed. With tears in their eyes, the Lady Knights ended up winning the point and then went on top, 16-15 while serving for match point. Then, another mysterious call was made on a set as the visitors were called for a double-hit, one of seven against NC on a night in which Liberty committed no such errors.
The lost point and the lost momentum were too much for the Lady Knights to recover from as Liberty took the 18-16 win and the Upper State title.
Not wanting to call out an official, when pressed, Johnson said some strange happenings went on in the Upstate.
"I had to gather them after the game, which ended abruptly after a call which made it 16-14," he said. "After a little dispute amongst all four officials, they decided to do a replay on the point. My girls had to gather their composure and emotions and get back on the court and play. I want to commend our girls for coming out and winning the next point and the point after that.
"We had a chance there, serving for match-set point," he continued. "We were up 16-15 and there was a critical subjective point and that was disappointing. Our girls fought hard. I had a great group of student-athletes this year and they performed well."
NC took the action to the hostesses in the first set. Their serves, digs, set and hitting were all on as they took the opener. Then, things started going the wrong way for NC in the second set loss.
"In the second set," Johnson said, "we had quite a few unforced --- hitting, serve-receive and ball-handling errors --- errors which gave them points.
"We talked about that all season; when we play well, we can play with the best of them. But when we hurt ourselves ... a lot of times in the game of volleyball, that’s how the points add up on the other team’s side of the scoreboard."
NC gained the momentum and the lead back by taking the third set but Liberty was not about to go quietly by taking the fourth on a night in which both teams received dazzling performances.
"Nothing against Liberty, they played well," Johnson said. "Stephanie Cope hit the ball extremely well from the middle for them and we dug a few of them up. She was really strong at the net.
"For whatever reason, we would get good swings on the ball and they would dig the ball up. Down the stretch, I think the last two or three points, we got great swings out of players and I think the last two they dug up, they actually had a player laying on the floor who dug the ball up. They found a way to get the ball back over to us."
While Cope was the Red Devils’ main weapon along the front line, NC countered with its senior trio of Madeline Pate, Erin Humphries and Ambi Wood. Pate and Wood had 16 kills each while Humphries added a dozen. Junior Gracen Kerr had six kills and three blocks while Humphries had 38 digs with Logan Coates, who had 43 assists, and Kelsie Gardner each coming up with 23 digs while Pate added 22 digs.
Playing in front of a large and loud crowd, Johnson said both teams had some unsettling moments in the match.
"The unfortunate thing was that we made a couple uncharacteristic errors out there on the court and, you expect that with the nerves when it gets to this level," he said. "That was a little disappointing because we try to train them for tough situations in practice. We’ve played some tough teams throughout the season and you want them to perform well under pressure."
In spite of some tough stretches, the Lady Knights did not stray from their winning recipe which led them to a final 21-1 record.
"I teach our players to be aggressive and when we get a good ball, we want to place it," Johnson said. "For whatever reason, (Liberty) hung around, but we felt confident throughout the night."
"It went down to the end. It was just unfortunate that we came up short. We had a great season. It was just disappointing with the way it ended up."