Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 3, 2013

RALEIGH — Carson’s perfect volleyball season is perfect no more.
The previously unblemished Cougars simply weren’t themselves in the 3A state championship match against Cardinal Gibbons at Reynolds Coliseum.
“I don’t know who that was out there,” coach Kelan Rogers said after Carson was topped 19-25, 13-25, 24-26. “But that’s not the same team we’ve been all year. We’re disappointed because we didn’t play like we had been playing.”
Kindly excuse Rogers for not recognizing the Cougars (34-1), who fell to history-making Gibbons (28-0) in the final for the second straight year. Missing was the insouciant swagger that had carried them through the SPC and five thrilling postseason rounds.
“I’m proud of our team and proud of everything we accomplished this year,” senior Hannah Elmore said afterward. “But I’m not proud of what just happened.”
A sweet season left a bitter aftertaste, but credit the Crusaders for their smothering display. They became the state’s first undefeated champion and first to win five consecutive titles.
“This was a different kind of team,” said winning coach Logan Barber. “We had no star player this year, just a bunch of girls committed to doing their job. We have a history of success, but every season we come in the first day of practice and say, ‘How are we going to win a state championship this year?’”
The answer came in a convincing performance — but not until after Carson flexed its muscle early in Game 1. Behind the power swings of Elmore, a few pin-point sets by sophomore Morgan Hester and four straight service points by Jordan Osborne, the Cougars grabbed a quick 7-2 lead.
“We knew about their girls — Michaela White, Madison Weast, Hannah Elmore,” said CG’s Molly Dalton. “But we didn’t panic. We practice that way, pretending we’re playing from behind.”
Gibbons caught up when a Carson smash was returned out of bounds to tie the score 12-12 and took control when an unforced error gave it a 23-19 lead.
“I think we were hesitating too much,” Weast said after contributing seven kills. “That was dangerous today. We didn’t help ourselves out.”
Game 2 saw Carson build a 9-7 lead when White elevated and blocked a shot at the net. The Crusaders responded with a 7-0 run, sparked by a pair of unreturned serves by MVP Cheyenne Wood, then finished the game with an 11-4 spurt. “We gave them the momentum,” White said, “and couldn’t get it back.”
Added Rogers: “We wound up defending a lot. They were on the attack.”
Carson spent much of Game 3 playing catch-up, but finally did when Weast rejected a shot at the net and the ball deflected off a CG player before spinning out of bounds. Then came a forceful slam by White, a clear that found a hole by Tori Pruett and a combo-kill by Weast and White that put the Cougars up 16-13.
“We were not excited about having to face (Carson) again,” Barber told a group of post-game reporters. “They’re a team that finds a way.”
Moments later Carson led 17-14 and had service, but proceeded to unravel. Gibbons reeled off four straight points and went ahead 18-17 when a hard shot whizzed past Osborne just inches inside the back line.
“You start mentally freaking yourself out,” said White, who totaled five kills and a couple of blocks. “That’s not the time to pull back. We got timid and pushed ourselves to do things we don’t normally do.”
The action see-sawed back and forth as the match raced to its finish line. Elmore’s block at the net gave Carson a 21-20 edge. A blast that deflected off Laura Vaughn tied it. A lifting call put the Cougars back on top 23-22 before Amanda Pruett’s long serve sailed out of bounds, knotting the score once again.
It came down to the final two serves — both won by Gibbons. The Crusaders inched ahead 25-24 when Vaughn’s dig went out of bounds left of the net. The clinched the championship — and a line to themselves in the state history book — when White’s game-ending clear attempt flew over the end line.
“It’s hard,” White said outside the media room. “We come out of the season with another 20-plus sisters. We’ll take away the 34-0 start. But this one we’ll forget about.”