Prep volleyball: Seniors lead Cougars

Published 11:21 pm Tuesday, October 11, 2016

By Mike London

CHINA GROVE — Madison Barnhardt had an unusual start to her Senior Night — an ankle injury when she got stepped on in pre-match warmups.
But Barnhart was still in there at the end, and she had two big kills and an ace in the fifth set as Carson won a 26-24, 25-18, 19-25, 22-25 and 15-8 marathon against Hickory Ridge.
“Coach told me I needed a rest a few times,” Barnhardt said with a smile. “But I told him I was good. It was Senior Night. I didn’t want to sit on Senior Night.”
Fans didn’t do much sitting, either. It was two even teams. Carson (18-3, 15-2 South Piedmont Conference) grabbed momentum, lost it, then regained it just in time in a wild roller-coaster ride.
On its home floor, Hickory Ridge (17-5, 14-3) beat Carson in five sets. This was payback. The teams will likely tie for second place in the SPC behind powerhouse Cox Mill. Carson still has a road game left with the undefeated Chargers, who are ranked 11th nationally.
“It’s accurate to say Hickory Ridge and Carson are very even,” Carson coach Kelan Rogers said. “I think we’re a stronger hitting team, but Hickory Ridge is better defensively. That makes things interesting.”
Carson has four seniors — Barnhardt, Elena Turnbull, setter Chloe Jacobs and Krystina McGrady. They were honored with flowers, balloons, signs and applause on Tuesday, and they earned it.
Turnbull, who totaled 20 kills, was dominant in a first set in which she had five kills and teamed for blocks with Lindsay Elmore and Grace Thomas.
“When you see someone put it down on their first hit, you get the ball to them,” Jacobs set. “Elena was hot all night.”
Jacobs set up Elmore for the kill that broke a 24-all tie, and Barnhardt finished the first set off with an ace.
Turnbull had six more kills in the second set, while Elmore had three. The last tie was at 11-all, but the Cougars pulled away steadily from there.
“We were passing well and hitting well,” Rogers said. “And Hickory Ridge was making a lot of errors in the first two sets. But then they stopped making them.”
The third set was 13-all, and it appeared Carson might end the day early, but then the Ragin’ Bulls got a flurry of blocks, several by Ally Todaro, that turned momentum. The Bulls went on to win that third set with relative ease.
“We have some stretches where we stop talking and we’re not having as much fun,” Turnbull said. “And their defense was great. They picked up a lot of balls that looked like sure kills.”
By the beginning of the fourth set, it was all Hickory Ridge. The Bulls jumped all over Carson at the outset. Rogers burned a timeout down, 3-0, and used his last one, with the Cougars down, 7-1.
“One of the good things about this team is that we can say what needs to be said and we can take some criticism,” Jacobs said.
Still, it was 11-3 before the Cougars got tired of being pushed around. Springy sophomore Mallory Weast put the Cougars on her back with four kills and two solo blocks, and Carson pushed all the way back to a 22-21 deficit before Hickory Ridge was able to close out the set on a kill by Todaro.
“The comeback that we made got the momentum back,” Barnhardt said. “There are always going to be bumps in the road before you get to where you’re going. We still believed in ourselves.”
Carson’s momentum from the fourth set carried over to the fifth set. Barnhardt started the set with a kill and her ace and another kill by West put Carson up immediately, 4-1, and the home crowd became a bigger factor.
Weast served four straight points as Carson stretched a 7-6 lead to 11-6. Taylor Harwood had a terrific dig that led to a Turnbull kill, and then Turnbull, flying all over the place, smashed another one.
The play that ended Hickory Ridge’s hopes was made by Barnhardt. Hitting from the middle, Turnbull was blocked, but the deflection went straight to Barnhardt on the left side, and she put it away for a 13-6 lead that had the crowd screaming.
“Madison was hobbled, but she gutted it out,” Rogers said. “She couldn’t make as many plays as she usually does, but she still made some big ones.”
It was Jacobs to Turnbull one more time for a 14-8 lead. Set and match point came next, although it took serious work. Hickory Ridge made three dazzling digs, fighting desperately to stave off that final point.
“My gosh, just let hit it the floor,” Rogers said. “They wouldn’t let it hit the floor.”
Finally Weast made the pass, Jacobs made the perfect set, and Elmore got the emphatic kill that emptied the bleachers.
“It’s always a good battle with Carson because we get along so well,” Hickory Ridge coach Patti Chason said. “But we let the mental part of the game get in the way of the physical part sometimes. We lost our momentum, and they had that Senior Night emotion going for them.”
“We weren’t going to lose,” Jacobs said. “Senior Night was a big deal, and I’ll never forget this night or this team.”
A post-match coin flip also went Carson’s way. If the teams end up tied for second, Carson will be the No. 2 seed for the conference tournament.