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High school volleyball: West moves on with five-set victory

West Rowan volleyball advances to third round

West’s Tori Hester 10 ACR’s Emma Roland 4 and Kyndall Chandler 7. photo by Wayne Hinshaw, for the Salisbury Post

By Mike London
mike.london@salisburypost.com

MOUNT ULLA — As a tense match headed to a fifth set on Tuesday night, West Rowan’s volleyball team headed for the hallway to talk things over.

All the momentum was with the surging A.C. Reynolds Rockets. West had lost two straight sets. It was a players’ only meeting. No coaches allowed.

“My seniors can usually take charge and take care of things,” West head coach Jan Dowling explained.

Tori Hester, Carly Stiller and Emma Gusler took care of things again. West returned to the court with renewed purpose, refused to let anything hit the floor and never trailed in the decisive fifth set of a second-round 3A state playoff match. KK Dowling’s 25th kill — Ashlee Ennis made the pass and Noe Gaeta made the set that led to Dowling’s left-side smash — ended the match and set off a celebration in the bleachers.

West prevailed in a fierce marathon — 25-23, 25-15, 25-27, 23-25 and 15-8. The top-seeded Falcons survived a scare, but now they’re 26-0, and they’ll play at home again. The Falcons will be hosting another team from the mountains on Thursday, ninth-seeded T.C. Roberson.

T.C. Roberson’s Rams handled A.C. Reynolds twice, so it will be another scrap.

“Our passing was really off tonight, and there were stretches where Reynolds just played completely out of their minds,” Coach Dowling said. “But what has made our team special is that when we’re down and out, when nothing is going right, this team is still we, we, we and not me, me, me. When they need each other, they pull together. That’s what happened.”

Dowling, the junior outside hitter, not her coaching mom, put on a show in the first set. The Rockets led by as much as 14-8, but Dowling and Hester were ripping flurries of kills, and the Rockets lost their lead. West caught up at 15-all. At 22-all, West scored the last three points on a block and an ace by Dowling and a kill by Hester, one of the 28 she hammered in Tuesday’s match.

West didn’t get a lot from middles Stiller and Kelcie Love in the first set, but that changed in the second set. West had a pretty easy time in that one, with Love and Stiller helping out with three kills each.

“We’d watched film of them and worked hard all week on connecting with our setter (Gaeta),” Love said. “We knew we had to be aggressive when we had a chance.”

West appeared headed for a sweep when it took a 10-4 lead in the third set, but that’s when the Rockets started digging in defensively.

“They dug balls that don’t normally get dug on us, and they were getting tips and blocks on everything we hit,” KK Dowling said. “We were playing strong, but then it was like we didn’t keep the pedal to the metal. We let off the gas, and they came back. They’re scrappy. They’re solid.”

A high percentage of volleyball is strictly momentum.

West was serving for set point and match point with a 24-21 lead, but the Rockets didn’t fold. Grace Brown had a pivotal kill for the visitors when it was 25-all, and they took the set, 27-25.

“It was like a roller coaster out there,” Stiller said.

The fourth set was tight all the way, neither team giving an inch, but the 16th-seeded Rockets (19-5) blocked Dowling for the final point of a 25-23 victory.

That was the block that sent the Falcons to the hallway for their meeting.

“We had a good hype talk,” Stiller said. “When it gets to a fifth set, we’ve always been able to come up. We’ve done it all year.”

A key for West was going to be getting active play in the middle from Love and Stiller, and they came through with big kills in the final set.

“When we lost that fourth set, there was some stress,” Love said. “But once we got in the hallway, just us, it was like everything calmed down.”

West desperately needed a fast start in the fifth set — and got it.  It was 3-1. Then it was 7-3. When the Rockets got within 8-7, the Falcons reeled off four in a row. A Stiller/Dowling combo block was big. Every Falcon looked confident, and Dowling was pounding missiles. Finally, she socked the set-winner, beating a strong block attempt.

“They were still getting their hands on everything in that fifth set, but we were reading the blockers better,” KK Dowling said. “We were getting the angles, and their blocks were going out  instead of back at us. We knew this was it. We knew we had to win. Everyone came out strong in that last set.”

A lot of people were surprised at how tough it was, but West’s players weren’t. They needed five sets to beat A.C. Reynolds in the second round in 2018, and A.C. Reynolds had just knocked out a North Iredell team that had taken the Falcons to five sets three times.

“We saw them last year, so we knew how good they were,” Stiller said. “The only difference was last year most people saw us as the underdogs when we beat them. This year, we’re not the underdogs.”

•••

NOTES: Hester had 28 digs and three blocks. Dowling had 17 digs. Stiller had 10 kills and eight digs. Love had eight kills. Libero Brooke Kennerly had 27 digs. Ennis had 24 digs. Noe Gaeta had 11 digs and 66 assists. … West honored players from its 1990-91 teams that included Coach Dowling.

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