Defending state champion Pickens lives to fight another day.
The mighty Blue Flame was staring the prospect of their earliest postseason exit in 12 years squarely in the face in Thursday’s second round Class 3A volleyball playoff match at Lugoff-Elgin. The host Demons won the first two games of the best-of-five set (25-22, 25-20) and raced to a 9-3 lead in the third game with visions of an unheard of sweep against the vaunted Upstate powerhouse dancing in their heads.
But instead of securing a landmark win, L-E could not land the knockout punch.
Pickens, ranked No. 2 in the final coaches poll, rallied to win 25-19 in the third game and finally got its offense in gear in the fourth and fifth games. The Blue Flame, which had a total of 34 kills in the first three games, rang up 16 kills in a 25-22 four-game win and added 10 more in the decisive 15-13 fifth-game clincher.
“My girls had to answer the question whether they were going to fight or whether they were going to fold in that third game,” said Pickens coach Jennifer Gravely.
“Honestly, we’ve been doing more folding than fighting this year. Lugoff-Elgin is an excellent team and they had us on the ropes but we somehow found a way to get it together on the floor and we started executing. It wasn’t pretty, but this may turn out to be the kind of win that turns a season around.”
For the fifth-ranked Demons, it was a gut-wrenching defeat.
“My girls player hard and they played well, but it wasn’t good enough,” said L-E coach Susan Morris, who was a picture of grace amid the post-match gloom.
“We had them, but couldn’t finish them off. That’s Pickens. There’s a reason why they’ve won so many state championships through the years. They found a way to get it done when they weren’t particularly sharp early in the match.”
The Demons did not choke, or crumble under the pressure as Pickens mounted its comeback. The Blue Flame simply was a little bit better, a bit more efficient when the heat was on.
“I’m always telling the girls that if you put your heart out there on the line, whether it’s in a relationship or sports or whatever, there’s a chance that your heart will be broken,” said Morris.
“Tonight was our turn to have our hearts broken. We knew coming in that we had a chance to win and a chance to lose. It wasn’t from a lack of effort or heart that we came up short. I’m really proud of this team and the performance tonight.”
Pickens’ offensive revival began with better passing and the hitting of Hillary Gambrell. The outside hitter had a meager five kills in the first three games, but caught fire with seven winners in the fourth game, and four more in the shorter fifth to finish with 16 for the night. Middle hitter/blocker Kara Morgan, who forced Demons star middle Hannah Dederick out of her game with her long wing span, emerged with 18 kills and three blocks.
With Dederick limited to just eight kills, L-E turned to outside hitters Claire Noel, Brandi Shull, Christina Bell and Chapin Talbot for scoring punch. The four combined for 44 kills from the left and right sides. Noel finished with a match-high 19 kills, while southpaw Shull had 14 while showing an uncanny ability to score off Pickens block attempts from the right side.
“I just wasn’t a night to score from the middle, and Hannah will be the first to tell you that,” said Morris. “We had to go outside and the girls really delivered.”
A kill and a block by Gambrell closed out the third game and kept the Blue Flame in the running. Pickens came out of a time out in the fourth game at 18-18 with purpose. Two kills by Morgan, two by Gambrell and one by setter Cassie Gravely set the stage for the winning point by Alene Hope.
The teams were deadlocked at 12-12 in the tense fifth game when L-E’s Bell sailed a left-side hit over the end line. Gravely followed with a serving ace for a 14-12 Blue Flame lead. Fittingly, Gambrell delivered the match winner – a blast that fell in off a Demons block attempt.
Demon setters Megan Kirkland and Taylor Kirkland were outstanding in the match with 22 and 20 assists, respectively. Libero Charli Brazell and Marlena Johnson headlined a stellar team defensive performance along the back line.
“We’re losing five key players, but we have a good nucleus coming back so we should be strong again next season,” said Morris.
“Building a program to contend with established teams like Pickens takes time, and we’re getting there. Hopefully, we’ll learn some things about what it takes from this match.”