10/20/05 — Gators, Eagles will battle for Championship

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Gators, Eagles will battle for Championship

By Steve Roush
Published in Sports on October 20, 2005 1:59 PM

Spring Creek and North Johnston entered the season-ending Class 1-A Carolina Conference volleyball tournament with an identical goal -- keep winning to extend their respective seasons.

The Gators did just that.

Tomeka Pride delivered a team-high 13 kills in a come-from-behind 23-25, 25-22, 17-25, 25-21, 15-7 victory over second-seeded Princeton on Wednesday afternoon. Spring Creek (12-7) removed its "bubble" team label and placed the Bulldogs' playoff hopes in jeopardy.

If the Gators upset top-seeded and unbeaten Rosewood in tonight's championship match, they would grab the league's No. 2 berth. However, a loss doesn't prove fatal since they could be eligible for one of two wild-card entries -- based on overall winning percentage -- available in the 16-team eastern bracket.

Meanwhile, Rosewood improved to 21-0 and ended North Johnston's postseason aspirations. Playing through adversity, particularly Homecoming Week distractions and a left-hand injury to middle hitter Courtney Hill, the Eagles managed to turn back the Panthers in strange fashion. An illegal substitution on match point allowed Rosewood to escape 25-21, 13-25, 25-21, 25-22.

"You hate to win a game like that, but I believe in divine intervention and that's what happened at the end of the game," said Eagles coach Jennifer Cochran. "We had a hard night and struggled with outside distractions all this week. But we stuck together through the adversity."

The Eagles also survived the strong play of Panther middle hitter Hannah Ellis. One of two seniors in the starting rotation, Ellis recorded match highs of 22 kills and six blocks in the four-set battle.

"Ellis played an outstanding match," said Cochran. "We kept the ball away from her when we played at North Johnston, but tonight she was like a magnet. She touched the ball every time we put it over the net."

Ellis constantly stretched the Rosewood defense with off-speed hits toward the backline and corners. That allowed the Panthers (10-9) to convert shots to middle court and just inside the 3-meter line on numerous occasions.

Meanwhile, the Eagles could never find a consistent offensive rhythm. Poor service receive and passing, as well as miscommunication at the net, resulted in transition balls for the Panthers. The visitors attacked well and kept Rosewood in a defensive mindset throughout the match.

"Our passing was off (and) our serving was off," admitted Cochran. "But somehow we found a way to win and that's what great teams have to do."

The Eagles did it with defense. Kelli Gurley and Stephanie Rhodes came up with several point-saving digs. When the passes successfully reached setter Abigail Barrow, the senior dished assists to Courtney Hill (10 kills), Kasey Grey, Kasie Braswell, Clare Narron and Gurley. The quintet combined for 21 kills and a few blocks.

Barrow collected 26 assists.

The teams split the first two sets before Rosewood rallied from three points down to win the third. North Johnston fended off two match points in the fourth set until committing the illegal substitution, which resulted in the match-ending penalty point. Teams are allowed 18 substitutions each set.

"I cannot slight my girls for anything tonight," said veteran Panther coach Nichole Davis. "They were hustling and had the want to win. They just did a great job. That's probably the best match, other than Princeton, that we've played all year."

Down 2-1 against the Bulldogs, Spring Creek opened the fourth set with a 4-0 run. Pride delivered two kills, while Brittani Billups added an ace and off-speed kill. Billups finished with six kills and three blocks in the 2-hour, 9-minute thriller.

Princeton stayed within striking distance behind the play of Stephanie Daughtry (11 kills), Cynthia Peedin (11 kills) and Sarah Gibbs (15 kills). But Spring Creek built as much as a seven-point lead and tied the match at 2-all on Courtney Oxendine's kill off Margo Sauter's assist.

The Gators, again, bolted to a quick lead in the decisive fifth set. Sauter dished out three assists -- all to Pride -- in a 5-1 run. Billups served an ace during the early surge and Princeton never seriously answered the challenge.

"It was awesome," said Sauter, who finished with 32 assists. "We had to pull together and focus on our main goal, which was to win. Coach (Deana Morris) said we have to take it one game at a time, one match at a time and that we can't look any farther ahead than that.

"We had confidence and faith in each other, and pulled through at the end. We knew we could do it and wanted to win. This is exciting because our school has never gotten this far (in the tournament)."