High school volleyball: West perseveres on Senior Night
1,000 kills for Tori Hester
By Mike London
MOUNT ULLA — Celebratory balloons hung everywhere for West Rowan’s volleyball Senior Night.
Statesville came close to bursting them.
West pulled itself together just in time to convincingly take the decisive fifth set and beat the Greyhounds 25-13, 25-14, 21-25, 18-25 and 15-6 on Friday evening.
“It was exciting, but we really should’ve beaten them in three,” West’s senior libero Hannah Pratt said. “We let up and we lost momentum. We stopped playing to our potential.”
West (17-3, 8-2) completed a stellar regular season and is assured of no worse than a tie for first place in the North Piedmont Conference. Carson (7-2 NPC) still has a match remaining at South Iredell.
West had not finished first in its conference since the 1995 season, when it was competing in 2A. The only other regular-season volleyball championship in Mount Ulla came in 1991 when current coach Jan Dowling was in uniform for the Falcons.
“It means a lot to win in this league because the NPC i so tough,” Dowling said. “Out of 10 conference matches, I was stressed out in seven.”
There was a lot going on Friday. West players wore pink, promoting awareness and raising funds for breast cancer research and treatment. The Falcons also were saluting former West coach Joyce Wilhelm, who is batting cancer. Plus it was Senior Night for two players — Pratt and setter Ava Link — who have been instrumental in the elevation of the program.
All those things were factors in the Falcons getting to play the match on a day when Rowan schools were closed and most football action was postponed.
It looked for a while like the Falcons might roll without raising Dowling’s blood pressure.
West bolted to an 11-1 lead in the first set and coasted, 25-13. The Greyhounds (11-17, 3-7) are ranked 35th in 3A. They’ve played just about everyone tough. But they looked shaky in the first set. They weren’t into the match, and West’s twin hammers — right-fisted Tori Hester and lefty KK Dowling — did whatever they wanted.
Carly Stiller joined the fun in the second set, as West turned a 7-6 struggle into a 17-8 breeze with a flurry of dazzling digs and non-returnable kills.
That 17th point was remarkable as Hester made the dig and perfect pass to thwart a strong attack by 6-foot-2 Madison Dagenhart. Hester got a set an instant later and drilled a precision kill to the back left corner. A junior verbally committed to Troy, she would turn in another awesome performance — 28 kills and 28 digs. She already has surpassed 1,000 career kills.
“West has exceptional athletes in 10 (Hester) and 5 (Dowling) who can take over a match,” Statesville coach Denise Hayes said. “They can just feed the beast, so to speak, and the rest of their girls go after everything.”
When Dowling crushed another kill for a 17-13 West lead in the third set, a sweep seemed imminent, but seniors Dagenhart and Aasia McNeill didn’t let the Greyhounds bow out quietly. Statesville got hot — and got the breaks. Statesville took the set, 25-21, on a rare Hester error, and the visitors were back in the match.
“As well as we started, we kind of stopped playing,” Link said. “We let down, got mad at ourselves. And then it was hard to get momentum back.”
West went up 11-5 in the fourth set, with Dowling swooping in like a 5-foot-10 helicopter to bash one through two Greyhounds. But Statesville was gaining confidence. Suddenly, it was 11-all. After 10 straight by the Greyhounds, they led 15-11. They won the set rather easily, 25-18.
“There was a point there where it didn’t matter who we hit it to or where we hit it, they dug it or they blocked it,” Coach Dowling said. “Statesville was doing everything right. It was all going their way.”
Prior to the fifth set, West appeared to be in trouble.
“We’d changed our lineup and had started playing really hard and I told the girls that this was their chance,” Hayes said. “This was their chance to make some headlines.”
Volleyball is the ultimate momentum sport, and Statesville had all of it. Grim faces gathered at the West bench, waiting for instructions. A lot of stuff was slipping away.
“Coach Dowling reminded us that everything we’d worked for all year was coming down to that fifth set and those 15 points,” Pratt said. “How much did we want it?”
Dowling put tall jayvee Megyan Anglin in the lineup, an unexpected move. A Statesville error gave West the first point. West earned the second point, a monster combo block by Anglin and Stiller.
“Probably the biggest point all night,” Coach Dowling said. “Megyan made me look like a coaching genius.”
Two Hounds went up to block KK Dowling, but the ball deflected out of bounds, and West led 3-1. Stiller’s kill made it 4-1. It was Stiller again for 5-2, and Kelcie Love’s kill pushed the lead to 6-2. Hester and Dowling took it from there, and the Greyhounds never could make a stand.
“That fifth set we came out hard and we played strong,” Link said.
There were sighs of relief, lots of smiles and hugs when it was over.
West put up impressive stats. Dowling had 19 kills and 21 digs. Pratt had 20 digs. Link had 32 assists. Allison Ennis had 28 assists and 13 digs. Stiller had 11 kills, while Love had four.
NOTES: With the East Rowan-North Iredell and Carson-South Iredell matches postponed to next week by Hurricane-related issues, the NPC tournament has been reduced to a four-team affair that will be conducted at Carson next Wednesday and Thursday, with Carson, West Rowan, South Iredell and North Iredell in the field. Fifth-place Statesville and sixth-place East Rowan won’t get to participate. “It was hard to tell my team that they’re not going to get to play in the conference tournament,” Hayes said. “Normally, 5 and 6 don’t make much of an impact, but we had a chance. We’re not a typical 5.” Hayes does expect her team to get into the 3A state playoffs. As the No. 28 seed in the 32-team 3A West bracket last year, Statesville knocked out the No. 6 and No. 11 seeds. … The Carson-South Iredell match is set for Tuesday at South Iredell and will determine if West is solo conference champion or shares the title with the Cougars.
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