10/17/07 — Gators, Panthers advance to finals

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Gators, Panthers advance to finals

By Rudy Coggins
Published in Sports on October 17, 2007 3:17 PM

KENLY -- Co-champions for regular-season play, Spring Creek and North Johnston will determine who is the "true" Class 1-A Carolina Conference volleyball queen today.

The top two seeds survived strong challenges Tuesday.

Junior middle hitter Kristin Smith pounded out a match-high 23 kills as the Gators ousted defending tournament champion Princeton 25-15, 17-25, 25-20, 25-22. Spring Creek (14-3 overall) earned its second trip to the finals in the past three years.

Brittany Keene provided 11 kills and three blocks as the top-seeded Panthers turned back 2005 tournament title-holder Rosewood 16-25, 25-21, 25-6, 25-22. It's North Johnston's first championship final appearance since 2004.

"I thought Rosewood came out really strong in the first set and did a tremendous job," said 11th-year Panthers head coach Nicole Davis. "They rattled us ... did a terrific job of getting their hands on a lot of balls. I'm not going to make any excuses."

Tied at 8-8, the Eagles took control with Taylor Johnson at the net. The middle hitter blocked an off-speed shot from Keene and slammed it back off Keene's out-stretched hands for a sideout.

The Panthers committed a passing error and Johnson provided another kill to make it 12-8. Rosewood (8-11) extended its advantage to 19-13 on Johnson's solo block.

Johnson ended up with match highs in kills (13) and blocks (six). Ashley Williams added two kills off Paige Babb assists in a set-closing 6-3 run.

"We had to come back and make some adjustments," said Davis.

North Johnston fixed its game at the service line and net. Keene and outside hitter Kayla Whitley factored into an early-set charge with a combined two kills and two blocks.

The Panthers committed just one serving error and capitalized on the crucial points. Trailing 21-20 in the second set, Cheyenne Crocker grabbed the sideout for North Johnston with a solo block against Williams. A Crocker kill and Casey Creech's ace put the Panthers up 23-21.

A Rosewood hitting error and Whitley's monster kill to the right back corner, off Sam Holland's assist, sealed set point and tied the match at 1-1.

North Johnston (16-5) played a phenomenal third set. After two hitting miscues on their first two serve possessions, the Panthers found that "zone" that all athletes dream about.

Leading 8-5, Davis' team reeled off an incredible 16 consecutive points. Crocker, Keene, Holland and Caitlyn Hines combined for eight kills, and an astounding .889 hitting percentage during that stretch.

The Eagles didn't consistently pass the ball and couldn't get either Taylor or Williams involved in the offense.

"In the third game, we just didn't get any rhythm," said Eagles coach Jennifer Cochran. "When you've got the momentum, you swing like you've never swung before, you pass like you've never passed ... do things you've never done before.

"It was a dream game. They played awesome."

Rosewood had just six serve attempts during the set.

The near-flawless play worried Davis, however. And her concerns surfaced in the fourth set when Rosewood nearly erased a six-point deficit down the stretch. The Eagles fell behind 23-14, but fended four match points before a passing error clinched the Panthers' trip to the finals.

"You hate to see that because you never know how your team is going to respond afterwards," said Davis. "Rosewood came back in the fourth set and we've seen enough conference matches like that to know (comebacks are possible).

"I thought Rosewood did a terrific job tonight."

Spring Creek and Princeton (11-10) split their first two sets in the first semifinal. The second-set loss nearly discouraged the Gators, who failed to consistently keep serve and let the Dawgs' scrappy demeanor bother them.

"Our communication was really off," said Smith. "But, we pulled it through, got back together and played as a team; not individually."

Smith's block of an off-speed hit gave the Gators their biggest lead, 15-7, in the third set. The third-seeded Dawgs clawed to within 16-13 on three service aces from Nikki Capps and Brittany Baker's kill.

Long rallies punctuated the next seven points, but Princeton couldn't seem to catch a break. Four consecutive unforced errors, coupled with a Smith solo block, put Spring Creek comfortably ahead 20-16.

The Gators kept the advantage and prevailed 25-20.

"We kept fighting ... staying in it, but we just weren't moving well, talking and communicating," said Princeton coach Trudi Rast. "(The breaks) turned things around."

The teams battled through 11 ties and five lead changes in the fourth set. Smith's off-speed shot, off Ashley Barwick's assist, fueled a 4-0 run. Smith added three more kills, all of Barwick assists, to make it 20-18.

Princeton pulled within 20-19 on Ashley Braswell's kill, but could get no closer. Two kills each from Smith and Tasha Whitfield kept the Dawgs from returning to the championship match.

"In the end, we realized we can do this if we just believe," said Smith. "We want to win, be the conference champions and the only way we can do that is if we keep our heads in the game."