Late in the first game of the Class AAA state volleyball championship Saturday afternoon, the weight and pressure of the moment came crashing down on North Myrtle Beach.
The Chiefs were on their way to winning the opening game with a 21-15 lead, but they allowed Pickens to storm back and win 10 consecutive points to take the first game 25-21. It could have easily been the beginning of the end.
But the senior-driven Chiefs had no intentions of going out with a whimper.
With an emphatic spike to the Pickens backline by senior Taylor Allman, North Myrtle Beach completed a sweep of the final three games and captured the state championship with a 3-1 victory at White Knoll High School.
The Chiefs won the final three games 25-18, 25-17 and 25-9 to claim the first state volleyball title in school history and finish the season 30-1.
“We lost a game early in the season, and as soon as we lost it we fought back even harder,” Allman said. “We knew if we did that tonight we would definitely take home the win. So we didn’t get down on ourselves. We kept our composure. We lost, but we picked it right back up and won the next three.”
Allman’s title-clinching kill was her 18th of the match, and she also had 29 digs. The team’s offensive leader became more aggressive as the championship trophy came within reach, recording kills on six of the Chiefs’ final 17 points.
“We depend on her,” Chiefs coach Estelle Barentine said of Allman. “She’s like our secret weapon, though I don’t think it’s a secret anymore. … I told my setter [Tara Hix] to set her and ‘Let’s finish it.’ ”
Following the final point, the Chiefs bounced, pig-piled, chanted and sang Queen’s “We are the Champions” rock anthem in front of a large crowd that traveled a few hours from North Myrtle Beach to back them.
“It was an amazing feeling,” said Allman, who hasn’t decided on a college but is being looked at by Division I programs. “It’s all surreal and hard to take in at this moment. It was really exciting. I thought I was going to cry a little bit more but I was just more relieved and excited and just proud of all of us.”
Junior Ellen Johnson recorded 14 kills Saturday, and sophomores Macy Thomas and Madison Treece combined for 35 assists. Senior Moriah Jones tallied 36 digs and 27 received serves without an error, and was 16-for-16 serving, including a key stretch of five consecutive points in the third game to help the Chiefs break a tie at 11 and take a 16-11 lead.
The first set stumble notwithstanding, North Myrtle Beach played one of its better matches of the year, making only three service errors in the four sets.
“We weren’t worried. We just kept our cool and knew what we had to do,” Jones said. “We knew we couldn’t fool around, we set our best hitters and did everything we needed to do.”
The Chiefs’ only loss this year came midseason to Myrtle Beach.
North Myrtle Beach had a chance to win the state championship in 2010, but they lost in the Lower State final when star Grace Jones – Moriah’s older sister – missed the match with a severely sprained ankle.
Several seniors were lost off that team, and the Chiefs lost in the second round of the playoffs last year.
Through it all, the Chiefs’ seniors grew on the volleyball court together. Four of the team’s five seniors start, and Jones cited the senior continuity as a major factor in the state championship run.
“All the seniors that start played club and played year-round, so we’re used to playing together and we’ve created a bond,” said Jones, who will play at Tusculum next year. “We know how each other plays, we know what each other can do, and we just kind of work to play to each other’s strengths, which is awesome and worked well. And our friendships are there.”
The five seniors won’t be the program’s only losses this year. With a state title secured, Barentine’s work is done at North Myrtle Beach. After 10 years of building and guiding the Chiefs volleyball program, the 70-year-old is stepping down as head coach.
She hopes Allman’s older sister, Erica, one of her former players, will take over the head coaching duties. “That’s our plan,” Barentine said. “If not I guess I’ll keep coaching.”
Combining her years at North Myrtle Beach and 18 years coaching at South Mecklenberg (N.C.) High, Barentine has nearly 500 volleyball wins. But Saturday’s state title is her first.
She believes the NMB program is set to remain strong in the future, in part because of the clinics and traveling club team opportunities that have been built in the area. “It’s going to stay that way now,” Barentine said.
Barentine said she might continue coaching club volleyball teams. “I coached all my life, and it kind of gets in your blood,” Barentine said. “It’s kind of like, ‘What will I do?’ I guess I could start playing more golf.”