BOONVILLE — The Lady Rams were pushed to the brink in Tuesday’s second-round playoff match against Northwest Conference tournament champion East Surry.
But in the end, the Mountain Valley Conference champions kept their title aspirations alive with another sweep, winning 25-19, 25-17, 25-14 in front of a rowdy crowd at home.
“The state playoffs wouldn’t be the state playoffs if you weren’t pushed. I want to play the best out there,” Starmount head coach Jon Symons said. “I was happy with the way we played tonight.
“We had a few issues in game one,” he explained. “I thought we were a little tight and struggled early. But once we got comfortable with the gym and with the situation, we got our feet going. What prevents us from moving our feet is playing uptight. Once we got our feet going, I thought we played pretty well.”
Tournament MVP Olivia Sheets and the Cardinals jumped all over Starmount early in the opening game, grabbing a 10-5 advantage behind back-to-back aces by Cheyenne Kota.
East continued to pull away, extending its lead out to 15-6 to stun the Rams’ raucous student section, leading to a Symons’ timeout.
“I told them to calm down,” he explained. “If you’re nervous, you don’t move your feet. It was just about moving your feet to the ball and getting your platform underneath the ball. I told them I don’t need perfect passes, I just need the ball up the air where Erin Barr has an opportunity to make a play. And if we can do that, she’s going to make a play.
“It was a much-needed timeout - it was ugly early.”
Coming out of the break, Starmount did calm down and reeled off six straight points to cut the deficit to 15-12, forcing a timeout by Caleb Gilley.
The Rams finally pushed ahead at 18-17 and never looked back. Powered by five kills by Hunter Welborn down the stretch, Starmount notched a hard-fought 25-19 victory in the opening game to take a 1-0 lead in the match.
“If you get down that much early and can flip it, you’ve created a whole lot of momentum. Especially in front of our student section tonight,” Symons added.
The Rams kept up the momentum in the second set, storming out to a quick 12-3 advantage, leading by as much as 12 late midway through at 17-9.
But East Surry answered and went on a 8-1 spurt to trim the deficit down to 18-17 on a Starmount error.
Needing to halt the burst, Welborn slammed a spike to push the lead back out to 19-17. The Rams scored the final seven points of the game - including two service aces by Ashley Johnson - to win 25-17, grabbing a 2-0 overall advantage.
In a do-or-die third game, the Cardinals matched Starmount point-for-point to open the set, trailing by just 9-7 early on.
But from there, the Rams snagged momentum and tallied 13 of the next 18 points to grab a commanding 23-12 advantage.
Starmount put the finishing touches on the 25-14 victory to complete the sweep.
“I was nervous about tonight; I knew this would be a tough match,” Symons admitted. “They finished third in their conference in the regular season but won their conference tournament, which tells me they’re starting to play. So we did a lot of film work for this game. Then they came out and verified they were a good team.
“This is a game of momentum and we kept building momentum,” he continued. “When you do that, it’s hard to stop it. They played hard and never quit, but I was excited to see that 25th point go up and be done. I didn’t want to mess around because I knew if we even cracked the door, they’d take advantage.”
Haley Hartman tallied 24 kills and 11 digs on the night to lead the Rams, while Welborn added 24 kills and seven blocks. Barr finished with 23 assists, four blocks and three kills, while Alli St. John and Johnson combined to go 21-for-26 from behind the service line.
“I was really impressed with our role players tonight - Brittany Zellar, Ashley Johnson - and our seniors played great. You can’t say enough about those three,” Symons added.
The Rams improved to 23-6 on the year with the win, staying perfect against 1A competition this season, while advancing into the third round of the 1A playoffs. Starmount will travel to Ablemarle (22-2) Thursday night for the match.
The Bulldogs swept East Wilkes to advance.
The match is set for 6:00 p.m. in Ablemarle.
Reach Matthew Gorry at 835-1513 or firstname.lastname@example.org.