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HICKORY — Turning 16 for Carson setter Morgan Hester meant not only a trip to the Department of Motor Vehicles for her driver’s license but a trip to St. Stephens for the 3A volleyball Western final.

“The volleyball was tougher than the license,” Hester said with a smile after Tuesday’s match.

No doubt. The Cougars struggled in stretches before finally handing their Indians the first loss of the season— 25-20, 27-25, 15-25 and 25-20.

The victory in front of a Standing Room Only crowd in Hickory put the Cougars (34-0) in Saturday’s 3A state championship game in Raleigh. It’ll be the Cougars’ second straight trip to the title game. They lost to Cardinal Gibbons in 2012 and they’ll face Cardinal Gibbons again.

“It was a lot of pressure trying to get back to the championship game,” Carson’s Tori Pruett said. “But we still played pretty good. Not our best in some spots, but pretty good.”

Carson was called for numerous “lifts” early on, meaning officials determined they had contact with the ball too long on dinks to be legal. The high-flying, one-handed stuff that Madison Weast does at the net that looks like she’s tipping in a hoops rebound, was interpreted as a violation, and Michaela White, Hannah Elmore and Hester also heard unexpected whistles when they thought they had scored points.

Those were two-point swings each time, and Carson coach Kelan Rogers was so dismayed at one series of calls he flirted with ejection.

“Some calls were made that haven’t been called in our previous games,” Rogers said. “I thought that got in our heads some. It got us playing really timid at the net.”

Weast, who had 16 solo blocks Saturday had just two solos, so she definitely adjusted her game.

White had 21 kills and nine aces, an amazing figure considering the level of competition. Hannah Elmore’s 11 kills included match point. Weast had nine kills. Pruett had six kills, and Elena Turnbull had four kills and three aces.

St. Stephens (27-1) whacked plenty of kills, but it’s two most impressive players arguably were libero Ashley Markland, who frustrated Cougar hitters a few dozen times, and smart setter Katelyn Houser, who also sang the national anthem.

Carson trailed by as many as four points before pulling out the opening game.

Pruett caught the Cougars up at 14-all with that patented horizontal shot that she punches parallel to the net. Turnbull’s ace for 22-19 — the ball deflected off the low gym ceiling — was a pivotal point.

Game 2 was the difference-maker. The Cougars appeared upset with several calls as they slid behind again. White appeared to make a kill that wouldve cut Carson’s deficit to 20-18. Instead it was a violation, and the Cougars trailed 21-17.

But they were able to get White to the service line and her consecutive aces lifted the Cougars back in the game.

Carson finally won it 27-25 when Weast won a fierce battle at the net.

“We overcame a whole lot,” White said. “That shows what kind of team we are.”

St. Stephens still wasn’t done. It walloped Carson in the third game to stay alive. Carson had only eight kills in that game, with White accounting for seven.

“We felt from the first game on that we could compete with them and hit with them,” St. Stephens coach Cheryl Markland said. “We fought hard as we could and we weren’t intimidated. We just didn’t come out on top.”

St. Stephens had momentum after Game 3, but Weast, silent for a long period, came back to life just in time. She had five kills in the final game.

“Bad things happened, but we just worked around them,” Weast said. “We couldn’t let it affect our game.”

Carson never trailed in Game 4 and led by as many as eight points. With the Cougars leading 24-20, Elmore teed up the last one, and it may have left a dent in the gym floor.

“I wanted that last point a lot,” Elmore said. “The tougher things got for us tonight, the more motivated we were to win this game.”

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