NORTH AUGUSTA — Coming into Tuesday’s home match, the North Augusta High School volleyball team was knotted in a three-way tie for third place in Region 5-AAAA. It was also two games out of second place behind visiting Lexington.
Making up ground against the team ranked seventh in the most recent South Carolina High School Volleyball Coaches poll is no easy task. But the team Yellow Jackets head coach Lindsay Tucker was most concerned with was her own. She was looking for a more consistent effort from her squad, which is battling South Aiken and White Knoll for a playoff spot.
Tucker was pleased as she left the gymnasium following a North Augusta sweep. The Yellow Jackets prevailed 25-14, 26-24, 25-20 for one of their biggest wins of the season.
“They were all playing our game, the game I know we can play,” Tucker said. “I’m really proud of the girls. They stepped up for a big region game.”
The win improved North Augusta’s record to 12-7 on the season and 3-3 in Region 5-AAAA. While the win goes a long way to improving their playoff hopes, it was how the Yellow Jackets prevailed that really bolsters their chances of a deep playoff run that can rival last year’s trip to the Lower State semifinals.
When North Augusta was at its best, it was dominating at the net, getting strong serving and hitting powerful shots that were deep in bounds on Lexington’s side of the floor.
“We were able to capitalize on things we worked on,” Tucker said of some recent efforts to refocus her team and get it to perform at its highest level. “We have to work on consistency, staying aggressive at the net and going for things, offensively and defensively.”
The revitalized effort paid off in a big way. The Yellow Jackets dominated the first game, using an early 9-0 run to take control. The combination of the hard, accurate serves of Gracie Bryant, the staunch but disciplined net play of Ndidi Okafor as well as the all-around effort of Ashton Norris and Ashley Townsend led North Augusta to a strong first-game win that set the tone for the evening. The second and third games were much more closely contested, but the Yellow Jackets played with the consistency Tucker was seeking to close out the win in three games.
“They all just rose to the occasion,” Tucker said. “They knew they had to perform and they did.”
Bryant, who celebrated her 18th birthday with the win, had a big night. She was a factor at the net with eight kills and four blocks, but her serving was a difference maker. She hit powerful serves that were hard to put in play – keeping the Wildcats on the defensive – and recorded four aces.
“It was on tonight,” Bryant said of her serving, before deferring credit to the rest of the Yellow Jackets. “We worked well together as a team, and everybody was on their game. It was a good birthday gift from the team.”
More often than not, when Bryant was serving, Okafor was patrolling the net. According to Tucker, Okafor had one of her best performances of the season. Okafor had three kills and what Tucker said felt like more than four blocks. She discouraged Lexington from trying to make kills and played smart, letting several shots go by that were destined to land out of bounds.
“That was one of the first games where that has happened,” Tucker said. “She has stepped up a lot and improved tremendously.”
North Augusta showed some mettle after falling behind early in the final two games. They came back both times by keeping rallies alive and establishing nice dig-set-kill rhythms. The Yellow Jackets overcame a 23-18 deficit in the second game by winning eight of the last nine points and took control midway through the third game for the clincher. Norris finished with 14 assists, Townsend had 14 digs and nine kills, Desmonet Wilson added eight kills and Raynee Spires led the way with 15 digs.
Now the Yellow Jackets are only a game out of second place and remain tied with South Aiken for third. But both moved a game ahead of White Knoll following its five-game loss to Aiken. North Augusta and South Aiken will get a chance to break their tie next Tuesday when they meet at NAHS in their annual Breast Cancer Awareness game. Before then, the Yellow Jackets will hit the road for a match at White Knoll on Thursday. Tucker is looking for her team to repeat what it did against Lexington.
“We just need to stay consistent, and I hope we play like that through the rest of the season,” she said.
Noah Feit is the Sports Editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than a dozen years after graduating from Syracuse University.