TRINITY — Wheatmore, try as it might, couldn’t keep pace with McMichael and powerful hitter Cassidy Tanton.
The top-seeded Warriors started well and fought to the end, but eventually the ninth-seeded Phoenix took over, defeating Wheatmore 22-25, 29-27, 25-13, 25-20 last Thursday at Wheatmore in the second round of the NCHSAA 2A East volleyball playoffs.
“You know, I’m pleased with how we played,” Warriors coach Sarah Beth Campbell said. “There were a couple points where we could’ve made better choices, but overall that’s what I wanted. McMichael’s good. We knew coming into it they’d feed their big dog most of the time.
“So, we worked yesterday in practice to defend that, but we don’t have that. So, it’s hard to work on defending something we don’t necessarily have. Third set was kind of a blah set, but I can’t say anything bad about my girls.”
Carson Elliott had 20 kills — seemingly trading kills with Tanton, a hard-hitting Auburn recruit, during some stretches — plus had 10 digs and six service points to lead Wheatmore (13-1), the undefeated PAC-7 champion and 12th-ranked team among NCHSAA 2A teams by MaxPreps.
Kelly Williams added seven kills, two digs, two blocks, six service points and two aces, while Kara Moore had 33 assists, 13 digs, two kills and three service points. Natalie Dodd had 24 digs — eclipsing 1,000 for her career — plus eight service points, four aces and two assists.
“Overall I was impressed with (Wheatmore’s fight),” Campbell said. “Thinking back to our Randleman match, that was our toughest match this year. And there were times when it felt like we just gave up. So, even though there were times in this match when I thought, ‘Oh, no, they’re giving up.’ They were able to rally back, so that was impressive they could do that.”
McMichael (15-1), the Mid-State 2A/3A champion, held fairly sizable leads in each set. The Warriors rallied from a four-point hole in the first to lead by one before trailing 22-21. But a pair of kills by Elliott and a kill by Emma Atwell highlighted a four-point run that gave Wheatmore a 25-22 victory and a 1-0 lead.
The Warriors again erased a four-point deficit midway through the second before the score was tied 21-21. The Phoenix led 23-21 before Wheatmore answered to lead 24-23. McMichael staved off set point twice before forcing two set points of their own that the Warriors fended off.
Tied at 27-27, the Phoenix finally edged ahead one and finished off the set on a hard kill into the back left corner by Tanton — who totaled 25 kills for the match. In the third, McMichael, seizing the momentum, used a 13-1 run to build a double-digit lead and cruised to a 2-1 advantage.
The Phoenix — who’ve won 27 or more matches and reached the third round in each of the previous two seasons — steadily built a five-point lead midway through the fourth and extended it to 18-12. The Warriors rallied within 19-18, but McMichael scored a free-ball kill and an ace to push its lead back out.
Wheatmore — featuring seniors Bailey Whiteford, Dodd, Elliott, Williams and Zoie Wyatt — got within two twice. But the Phoenix, ranked No. 15 among state 2A teams, finished off the match to advance to the regional semifinals, which is the third round this year because of the smaller, more-concentrated brackets.
“Typically I don’t think we’d be playing that kind of ball second round — ever,” Campbell said. “That’s going to be a fourth round and beyond kind of thing. McMichael was good enough to make it further last year and pretty much returned their same combination.
“Again, we knew what they had. So, our big thing was: We’re not going to lay down and die, and we’re just going to fight. And that’s what we did.”