Prep volleyball: North Iredell 3, Carson 0
By Mike London
CHINA GROVE - The first point of the match went exactly as Carson drew it up. Michaela White set the ball perfectly, Hannah Elmore pounded it straight into the floor with a howl, and the Cougars led 1-0.
Unfortunately for Carson, the other 74 points the Cougars were looking for proved elusive.
North Iredell romped 25-10, 26-24 and 25-11 at the Carson gym on Tuesday in a battle of volleyball unbeatens that turned out to be more of a light skirmish.
Last season's 3A runner-up, North Iredell (12-0, 6-0) showed that it's still the team to beat in the NPC and that it's again a strong contender to be in Raleigh for the state championship match.
"There were two super teams that were scheduled to play today," disappointed Carson coach Kelan Rogers said. "But only one showed up. North Iredell smashed us in the face, and we never got back up. Our passing was terrible. Our hitters were scared."
Carson (16-1, 5-1) hadn't lost a set all season, much less a match, but it was blown away by North Iredell's height, power and court coverage in the first set.
Down 6-2, Rogers called his first timeout. Down 9-3, he burned his second one. It didn't matter. North Iredell just kept pounding.
"We came with enthusiasm and we talked well today," said North Iredell's 6-foot senior Brooke Redmond, who had 11 kills and 16 digs. "We were ready from the first point of this match until the last one."
North Iredell experienced a five-set struggle with rival West Iredell last Thursday. West Iredell is a team Carson swept, but NI coach Natalie Tribble said her team fixed some issues and played solidly Monday in beating Forbush. That progress carried over to the showdown with Carson.
"We knew Carson probably would be the strongest team we've played," Tribble said. "We came in here respecting them a lot, but we also came in knowing we could do a lot better than we have been. Our girls proved today that they can do better."
A huge crowd was ready to roar for the Cougars, but North Iredell seized control so quickly and so dynamically that the home-side throng never was a factor.
"Volleyball is all momentum," Tribble said. "So it was nice that we got up early and quieted the crowd a little."
Carson had every opportunity to win the second set but didn't get it done.
Aimee Cloninger served three straight aces to push the Cougars into a 15-11 lead, but Tribble called her only timeout of the day and got the Raiders refocused.
The pivotal point came at 17-all. Carson made two strong combo blocks on the longest point of the day, but North Iredell's 6-3 middle blocker Madison Vaughn ultimately won the point with a stuff-block.
Carson wouldn't lead again. Madison Weast had a super block for 22-22 and Cloninger had one of her six kills to lift the Cougars to a 24-23 deficit, but North Iredell held firm to win the set.
"We got down early and just did not play well at all today," said Cloninger, one of the Cougars' two seniors. "If we'd won that second set, we had a chance, but even though we played hard, we just didn't play hard enough."
While Carson showed life in that middle set, Rogers still wasn't pleased.
"It's not like we started playing well," he said. "It was a case of North Iredell not playing as well."
North Iredell capped the day with a flourish, playing the third set with the same relentless fire it had shown in the first one. Carson was quickly facing a 10-4 deficit and never challenged. Allison Blackwell's kill that trimmed the deficit to 21-11 was the Cougars' final point of the evening.
North Iredell setter Holly Baldwin had 36 assists. Emily Howard had 10 kills, and Vaughn had eight stuff-blocks. NI libero Kimbrie Church was an acrobat and was the defensive star. She made 26 digs, including a dozen of the spectacular variety.
Elmore had seven kills for Carson and Blackwell had four, but no one ever got a hot hand.
"This match had a lot of hype," Rogers said. "North Iredell lived up to it, but we got intimidated. They did to us what we've been doing to other teams."
There's a whole lot of season left for Carson, and 16-1 is nothing to sneeze at.
"I don't think our girls like how this feels," Rogers said. "We have to use it to get better."