NORTH AUGUSTA — There was extra significance to Tuesday’s high school volleyball showdown between North Augusta and South Aiken.
It wasn’t just a renewal of the rivalry between the Aiken County schools. It was a critical late-season showdown between two teams tied for third place in Region 5-AAAA battling for a postseason berth. And if that wasn’t enough to make it a special night at North Augusta High School, it was also the second Fight Night event between the teams, where they raised money and awareness in the battle against breast cancer.
The teams were united in the pre-game program, but foes once the match began. Although it was closely contested and fairly evenly played, the Yellow Jackets were able to pull away in the late stages of each of the games for a sweep and a leg-up in the playoff race.
“The playoffs were on the line; this was very big,” North Augusta coach Lindsay Tucker said of her team’s 25-21, 25-18, 26-24 victory which leaves it tied for third in the region with White Knoll, just a game behind Lexington for second place. More importantly, the Yellow Jackets (13- 8, 4-4) are a game ahead of South Aiken in the standings with only two matches to play. “We’re pretty much guaranteed a spot.”
Only four teams will advance from Region 5-AAAA into the state playoffs, and South Aiken’s currently on the outside looking in. Being a fourth seed isn’t a guarantee of an early exit from the playoffs as North Augusta proved last year when it advanced to the Lower State semifinals as the No. 4 seed from the region. That might have been why South Aiken coach Teresa Carter was so upset following the loss that could have her squad left out again this season.
“I don’t understand it; the girls are better than what they did tonight,” Carter said after her squad fell to 11-6 and 3-5 against region opponents. “It puts us in a tough position. We have to beat White Knoll on Thursday or Aiken on Tuesday. It helps that we play White Knoll at home, but it’s up to the girls.”
Both teams made mistakes in Tuesday’s match. Early on, most of the points were decided by errant shots that were sprayed out of bounds as opposed to clean winners. The difference was in the rotations. In each of the games, North Augusta was able to use a run midway through the contest to establish breathing room and play from the lead the rest of the way, each time staving off a valiant but fruitless South Aiken comeback. In the first game, individual rallies grew longer and longer as both teams desperately kept points alive. This effort took a toll later in the match, but it was the Yellow Jackets’ consistent execution and ability to capitalize when opportunities were presented that proved to be the difference.
“The girls can step up when we need them,” Tucker said of her players being at their best at critical junctures.
“They ended up pulling it out. They were able to capitalize when they needed to and won some big points.”
North Augusta was at its best in the second game. It took control early, building a lead that bulged to nine points thanks to strong play at the net. The Yellow Jackets were successful blocking the T-Breds’ power shots, finishing points via kills with power and finesse and through the outstretched arms of the opposition. Ashley Townsend led the way with 10 kills, while Gracie Bryant had six of her own to go with nine blocks.
“Gracie did it for us again and Ashton Norris also stepped up,” Tucker said of the two seniors, with the latter leading the team with 26 assists.
Fellow senior Jacquie Hill had 18 digs, and sophomore Raynee Spires contributed 11 in the match that was a little sloppy at the end. Both teams looked a step slower because of all the energy they exerted in the early stages. The third game was a back-and-forth affair with lots of miss-hit shots, but again it was North Augusta that was able to make the most of the situation pulling ahead 23-15. South Aiken fought back valiantly, with an incredible shot by Cat Luther from the floor to keep the game alive. Bailey Parker had 14 kills and six digs for the T-Breds, which also got 25 assists and four aces from Lauren Howard while Elizabeth Butler added six kills and three blocks. But it wasn’t enough in the end as North Augusta persevered one last time for the win.
“We’re not where we need to be,” Carter said of her squad, which will return to action tonight with a non-region home match against Augusta Prep. “We’ve got to get more consistent.”
The Yellow Jackets will close out their schedule with a road match at first-place Aiken on Thursday and return home for a senior night showdown with Dutch Fork next Tuesday.
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.