TUNNEL HILL — With her team on the cusp of a spot in the Class AAAA Elite Eight, Northwest Whitfield High School's Kaley Long took over the third game of the best-of-five match with a spurt of kill after kill.
Asked about that stretch after the match Long said she was simply looking to contribute after not getting many kills earlier in the match. Of course, it's tough for any hitter to slam kills when the ball's not coming back over the net to them.
Northwest hosted Chapel Hill in a second round match in the Class 4A state playoffs. When both teams put their cards on the table, Northwest showed off a hand that was all aces.
The Lady Bruins excelled from the service line, recording 20 aces on the night sweeping the Lady Panthers out of the playoffs 25-11, 25-15, 25-15.
"I feel we played really well, we really stepped up our game and played as a team," Long said.
"We did so good, I'm just proud of everyone," Northwest libero Shelby Gordon added. "We gave it our all and we're just so happy to be where we are."
According to Northwest coach Kelsey Kirk, her team that features only one senior, is coming together, both on and off the court, at the right time.
"We showed a lot of maturity today," Kirk said. "We talked a lot about how the important things in life are not always going to be volleyball, but the togetherness, the community, the relationships you're going to build on the court. That's the most important thing and if we can focus on that, the rest will fall into place."
After taking the first two games comfortably, Northwest, and in particularly Long, came out in the third anxious to put the match away. The Lady Bruins ran off 11 straight points to build a 15-3 lead before cruising to the win. Long put down four kills during that stretch and finished with six for the match.
"I wanted to win so bad," Long said. "I feel like I didn't get many kills the first half so I really wanted to contribute and really put something down there."
For freshman Abigail Crawford, the key for the team was in it's execution.
"We felt if we just came in and executed we would win," Crawford said. "If we all did our jobs and didn't try to do something all crazy, we could get it done. Long led the team in kills on a night with Heath adding five and Shelby Morrison four. It was a night where there weren't many to be had with how well Northwest was serving.
"We spent a good bit of practice yesterday talking about serving and the mentality of serving," Kirk said. "A lot of times it's not athleticism that makes a serve good, it's your mental toughness. We talked about focus and our ability to close a match. Serving definitely came into play today.
"I told our girls going into this match, that we needed to be the aggressor. We needed to be the ones in the driver's seat, we needed to strike first and strike often. That way it prevents us from having to dig out of a hole and be on the defensive side."
Striking first included lining ace after ace from a variety of sources. Crawford was tops on the team with six aces on the night. Holly Heath and Gordon each finished with four.
Three of Gordon's came in the final game helping Northwest close out the night.
"Just look for something that's open, make any play we can," she said.
Crawford had a consistently strong serve all night. She gave her team its first separation in Game 1 serving six straight points, three coming by way of ace.
"After I first served it and saw there was a hitter where I was line-driving it, I felt I could really capitalize on her frustration," Crawford said, "and just serving it to her, and serving it to her and seeing how many point we could get."
Chapel Hill coach Jeremy Anderson said his team struggled getting good passes off serve-receive.
"They could serve to different zones and we had a really hard time tracking that," he said. "That made a huge difference in the whole game really. They scored most of their points off their serves because we just couldn't get a good pass to do anything with it."
Anderson's team played a strong game at the net, but couldn't get to it often enough.
"We had really good blocks, and several good attacks that they had a hard time with," he said. "It's just unfortunate we didn't get enough opportunities to make it much of a difference."
Chapel Hill finishes the year 20-17. The Lady Panthers were the fourth seed from Area 5-AAAA and upset the Area 3-AAAA champion Richmond Academy to get to this point.
"Obviously disappointed with how it ended," Anderson said, " but knowing what I know about our team, we had a pretty good season. We're proud to have been here and to be able to play here tonight."
Northwest (34-11) will play in the state quarterfinals on Saturday against an opponent to be determined. The state re-seeds the teams going into the final eight. It's the first time Northwest has advanced to this level since 2008, when Kirk was on the court for the Lady Bruins as opposed to the head of the bench.
"I think the last team that made it to the Elite Eight in Northwest volleyball history was my junior year," Kirk said. "So that's kind of cool I get to be a part of both victories in that aspect. It was definitely unexpected. Coming into this season, if someone told me we're going to play in the Elite Eight for the state tournament, I would've laughed, because we had no clue what was going to happen, no clue what to expect with this team, and they've really surprised me pleasantly."
Northwest came into the season having to replace the core of last year's area championship squad. The team has surpassed the expectations of many, and aren't done yet.
"It means so much, we worked so hard," Gordon said. "We've lost a lot and to come back and do this is amazing."