After cruising through the first round of the Class AAAA playoffs, the Aiken High School volleyball team faced a tougher challenge Thursday when it played host to West Ashley. The Hornets responded with an impressive performance that saw them storm out to an early lead before ultimately prevailing 25-12, 25-17, 25-18.

Aiken’s win, coupled with South Aiken’s upset victory on the road against Fort Dorchester, sets up a Lower State semifinal showdown between the crosstown rivals. The Region 5-AAAA squads will battle at Aiken High next Tuesday, with the match tentatively scheduled to start at 6 p.m.

The Hornets will head into that match on a hot streak, perfect in best-of-five matches since dropping a game to the Thoroughbreds in an Oct. 1 victory. Facing a team with players capable of hitting powerful shots Thursday, Aiken (41-4) had to be at its best defensively. The Hornets were up for the challenge.

“We were moving a lot better and did a good job on defense,” head coach Malynda Young said. “We were digging a lot of stuff out and did a good job moving around and keeping (West Ashley) moving. We didn’t let them get set up.”

Aiken’s ability to keep the ball in play led to several points. As plays were prolonged, West Ashley (19-7) often would make a mis-hit that didn’t get over the net or set the Hornets up for a quick kill.

They were at their very best in the opening game. Early on, the score was tied at 3-all before Aiken went on a run and put the contest out of reach. The Hornets went on a 5-0 run and scored 10 of the next 11 points because of their ability to keep the ball in play and exploit empty spaces on West Ashley’s side of the floor.

Leading the way was Anna Tovo. The All-State senior finished the night with 19 kills, four digs, two blocks and two assists. She had the Wildcats off balance all night, seemingly pulling the string amd making it look like she’d be going for a powerful spike before hitting a deftly-placed touch shot to a soft spot vacated by the scrambling defense.

“That’s Anna’s strength,” Young said. “They could see it coming, but they couldn’t do anything about it.”

The Hornets got a lot of contributions in the match that grew more competitive with each passing game.

West Ashley moved better and never quit, but Aiken’s balance was too much to overcome. Emily Teelon, another All-State selection, had 32 assists, six digs and three kills for the Hornets, while Courtney Law, Carly Bland and Rachel Joyce had an impact at the net and the back line. They combined for 15 kills, with Bland also contributing six digs, but they were part of an aggressive serving attack that racked up 11 aces. Joyce recorded a team-best five aces, as the Hornets sacrificed a little consistency on their serve to get more scoring.

Freshman Allysa Frazier also pitched in with a strong effort. She had four kills and two blocks, displaying impressive athleticism while getting a chance to man the net alongside Tovo.

“She’s really growing. She’s worked hard, and I hope it keeps her going and she gets even better,” Young said. “She has a fantastic vertical and is a good blocker.”

Aiken will need all hands on deck as it plays host to South Aiken. The Hornets swept the T-Breds in their Region 5-AAAA matchups but will be facing a red-hot squad that targeted this as their goal following the last match of the regular season.

“We want to come back and play Aiken High. We hope to be here again in the playoffs,” South Aiken head coach Laurie Ulmer said a week ago. Now that her team has granted her wish, Ulmer said “we’re ready.”

So too will be the Hornets, who will look to advance to state championship for a fourth consecutive season.

Noah Feit is the sports editor for the Aiken Standard and has been a professional journalist for more than 14 years after graduating from Syracuse University.