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Slow-starting Lady Knights regroup to sweep AJ
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NORTH CENTRALS MADELINE PATE (left) receives a serve from Tuesdays match with Andrew Jackson with teammate Erin Humphries also pictured on the play from the Lady Knights 3-0 victory. - photo by C-I photo by Tom Didato

Trailing 22-16 in the first set of Tuesday’s Region 4-AA show with visiting Andrew Jackson, North Central volleyball coach Andy Johnson took a look at the scoreboard and, as always, noticed that aside from the score the only numbers in the time section were those counting down the one minute allowed for a time out.
The Lady Knights came out of the break and went on a set-ending 10-2 run to take the opener, 26-24. That lit the fuse for a 3-0 sweep as the Lady Knights put this rematch of last year’s AA Upper State semifinals --- won in four sets by AJ --- to bed early by taking the second and third sets, 25-16 and 25-18, respectively.
The win gave the hostesses a 6-0 overall record in dual matches and a 3-0 conference ledger.
Johnson said his talk to his team during the time out with the Lady Volunteers three points away from winning the opening set was not of the “rah-rah” variety. Instead, he laid his cards on the table and got his team to settle down and take the one point at a time approach.
“I have girls with great character,” Johnson said, “and we were in a similar situation earlier this season. I told them that in the game of volleyball, you don’t run out of time and the clock doesn’t tick. As long as you keep performing well, point-by-point, you’re never out of a volleyball match.”
Starting another different lineup, a carryover from Saturday’s Sumter Spike-Off, the Lady Knights struggled out of the box as AJ turned a 13-12 deficit into a 22-16 advantage. The visitors were on the verge of closing the first set out when an NC serve sailed wide to make it 24-18. AJ would then have problems of its own.
A hit going out of bounds followed AJ being called for having a player in the net as its lead shrunk to 24-20. Another infraction against the guests led to a time out as NC climbed to within 24-20. That did not slow down NC’s roll as two out of bounds hits and a player in the net call against the visitors brought the deficit down to 24-23.
Lady Knight senior Madeline Pate then found space between a pair of defenders for a set-evening point. Sophomore Alexis Hackworth foplloed as she served up an ace to put the host team on top at 25-24 before an AJ return found its way into the net to help complete the first set comeback.
Johnson said his team just needed to settle down and get back into a rhythm to help turn the tide in its favor.
“I think we got a little more comfortable,” he said of his team’s play down the stretch. “We made some ball-control errors that hurt us early in the set.
“Andrew Jackson battled with us; there were some long rallies out there. But our girls got more comfortable as we went along. I told them that I was very proud of them for not giving up and not giving in during the first set.”
Johnson said changes in his team’s rotation may have had something to do with their unsettled play early in this contest.
“Some of the fault for that is mine because in three days, we’re changed our lineup three different times,” he said. “We started today with one rotation, which we changed Saturday in the tournament, and I changed it against (Monday.) Part of the fault is mine because I felt a little uncomfortable on the court, but I had faith in them that they would perform well and, they did.”
The Lady Knights did not need a late comeback in either of the final two sets. In the second, they used back-to-back kills from Pate and senior middle hitter Ambi Wood to extend an already comfortable lead into double digits at 21-11 before cruising to the nine-point triumph.
NC continued to take the play to AJ in the finale with junior Gracen Kerr, senior outside hitter Erin Humphries and Wood, dominating play along the net as the hostesses took control of things early with Logan Coates setting the tempo offensively and defensively in a lead which ballooned to 17-7 after an AJ return shot found the net.
The Lady Vols tightened things down the stretch with a 9-4 run to close the gap to seven points.
Wood, a returning all-state performer, led the NC power game with a dozen kills while also having a block in coming off the bench in the opening set. Fellow 2013 all-state selections Pate and Humphries both had eight-kill nights with Humphries adding 25 digs while Pate had eight digs. Coates dished out 30 assists to go with 10 digs, two aces and a kill while fellow sophomore Kelsie Gardner came up with 18 digs while adding an assist, an ace and a kill.
Once getting that first set win under their belt, Johnson said his team did what they do best which is winning matches.
“I have several girls who are varsity-experienced and I have about five of them who are in their first year on varsity,” he said. “It’s a different atmosphere when you start talking about jayvee and varsity level. There were a couple times when I had three sophomores on the court at the same time. (Winning the first set) probably helped calm them down a little bit and gave them a little confidence going into the rest of the match.”
While the win keeps NC atop the 4-AA standings, Johnson was not ready to talk about championships this early in the season.
“I tell our girls that when we play well, we can play with the best of them in the state of South Carolina, no matter the size of the school we play or, the athletes they have,” he said. “When we do what we do and do it well, we can compete with anybody.
“Andrew Jackson is a quality team but I thought our girls handled themselves well. We got a little rattled with some unforced errors to start out but I thought they did a good job of settling down and regaining our composure as the night went on.”