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High school volleyball: Carson in a fight, but plays on

Carson volleyball moves on in 3A playoffs

Wayne Hinshaw file/for the Salisbury Post …
Carson’s Jaden Vaughn (22), right, shown going against West Rowan’s KK Dowling (5), came up big for the Cougars in Saturday’s 3A playoff win over Hickory.

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

GRANITE QUARRY— Carson libero Kary Hales limped out of the locker room with an ice pack on an elbow and another on a shin.

Hales looked like she’d been dropped from a plane without a parachute, but she was smiling because Carson is still playing after Saturday night’s grueling 25-18, 22-25, 25-19 and 25-19 win over Hickory in the third round of the 3A volleyball state playoffs.

“Kary got hurt in the second set,” Carson head coach Kelan Rogers reported. “She hit the bleachers and then she hit the floor hard a couple of times. She wasn’t moving like she usually does, wasn’t getting to as many balls as she usually does, but she kept fighting. She hung in there. She’ll be OK.”

This was a bruising, scary match for the third-seeded Cougars, who haven’t been this far since 2015. They were eliminated that season  in the fourth round at West Henderson.

Second-seeded West Henderson (31-2), a perennial power in the mountains, is also the next destination (Tuesday) for the current Cougars (25-3).

Mallory Weast had 18 kills, 15 digs and three aces in Saturday’s tussle. Grace Thomas had 37 assists and four blocks.  Nancy Gamewell had seven kills and five blocks.  Hales had 31 serve-receives and 24 digs. Jaden Vaughn had 21 serve-receives, 18 digs and 12 kills. Weast, Thomas and Gamewell were likely playing their final game in the Carson gym.

Carson’s weakness is height. The Cougars really don’t have any.  Vaughn is listed at 5-9 on the roster, but that’s if she’s wearing heels. Gamewell, the middle, is 5-8. Weast, who does the rest of the scrapping at the net for Carson, is 5-6.

Hickory is quite tall, with a 6-3 middle hitter, a soaring, 5-11 outside hitter, a 5-9 setter and another bouncy 5-9 middle. Hickory can hit.

“They beat us in height, by a lot,” Thomas said. “We knew it would come down to whether we could out-hustle them. And we had to play level-headed.”

It was a hard match to stay level-headed in.

“We like a fast pace, but it just got frantic out there,” Hickory head coach Jason Stephens said. “When it got frantic, we got out of position.”

The first set was owned by Weast. She flew through the air like she was part of a trapeze act, dumping balls over Hickory’s front row, at first, and then whipping lasers to the back corners. It was 12-all when Weast took over. Hickory’s Makayla Malbon rose to meet Weast in the air on set point, but Weast banged the ball off her for her eighth kill of the set, and the Cougars led 1-0.

Stephens used the interval between the first and second sets to adjust to Weast. There’s no way to anticipate a 5-6 person creating sheer havoc until you actually see it happening, but Stephens saw it, and did what he had to do.  Two blockers focused on Weast the rest of the night.

The second set was tight all the way. Down 15-13, Rogers got a timeout, and the Cougars responded with four straight points. But then Hickory scored four straight after Stephens got a timeout. Malbon and Julie Huggins nailed the key points for the 11th-seeded Tornadoes (22-4) down the stretch, and when Gamewell smacked one into the net, Hickory had the set, a 1-all tie and a lot of momentum.

As a Hickory cheerleader roamed the bleachers leading an “I believe that we will win” chant, Rogers pulled his team into a huddle.

“Hickory is big and their blocks were big,” Rogers said. “They were getting a lot of swings at us. Most teams have two girls, or maybe three, who can hurt you, but they had five or six. They were getting swings and kills from all over. It’s hard to block that, and we didn’t have enough blocks today.”

The third set was the pivotal one, and it could have gone either way. Hickory had just about taken Weast out of it at that point, and Gamewell was struggling against Hickory’s height. Hannah Saine had two kills for Carson, but most of the load fell on Vaughn, and she responded with seven kills in the set.

It was 15-all when Vaughn and the Cougars picked it up with three straight points, and then pulled away.

“That third set was really important for us because we had to get the momentum turned around,” Vaughn said. “I thought we started to play like we can. We stepped up the defense and we were solid on offense. We wanted it.”

Carson played its best in the final set. Weast got re-energized and slammed four kills. Gamewell came through with three kills and two blocks. Weast and Hales accounted for aces in stretch run. It was over after Weast and Gamewell teamed for an emphatic block in the middle and a 21-15 lead.

Rogers said the Cougars weren’t at their best, but they did enough to win.

Carson was fortunate. Hickory gave away a lot of points to negate its powerful kills.

“Serving errors really hurt us a lot today and Carson’s defense is very strong,” Stephens said. “They dig it up a lot.”

Hickory has six seniors, so it was an emotional loss.

“I was proud of this team,” Stephens said. “We beat the No. 6 seed (Cox Mill) on the road to get here. A lot of teams were sitting home today, but we were competing and we had a good showing against the No. 3 team.”

The 3A West bracket  is down to four teams. Top-seeded Marvin Ridge knocked out West Rowan on Saturday and hosts No. 4 seed Watauga next.

“I think any of the four teams that are left could win it,” Rogers said. “But we’ll be underdogs the rest of the way.”

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