JOHNSTON CITY — NCOE emerged unscathed from Starrick Gym Monday night, but Johnston City made the Cardinals sweat for two sets.
Overcoming an 18-9 deficit in the first game and nearly wiping out a 15-1 hole in the second game, the Indians were noble losers to one of the state’s top Class 1A squads. The 32-30, 25-21 verdict upped NCOE’s mark to 13-1, but lucky No. 13 almost didn’t occur.
“This makes us realize you have to work on finishing matches,” said Cardinals coach Jaclyn Melton. “You have to have the killer instinct, especially against a Johnston City team that has improved leaps and bounds.”
Melton knew first-hand what trouble her team could find. First-year Indians coach Jon Watts matched wits with Melton for years in the Greater Egyptian Conference at Crab Orchard, and Watts is smart enough to feed a powerful weapon like senior outside hitter Alexis Turner.
The 5-foot-10 Turner, who Watts says possesses a 29-inch vertical leap, used her skills and power to mash 22 kills. Whether it was cut shots, tips or straight power to the lines, Turner repeatedly beat taller defenders at the net in an impressive display.
“She’s been averaging around 15 to 20 kills per game,” Watts said of Turner. “NCOE has some very talented players and I thought Alexis was the best player on the court tonight. We came and competed with a great team.”
Johnston City (7-4) was down by nine in the first game after Kennedy Cook’s kill ended a 9-0 Cardinals run. But the Indians started chipping away, using the determination of Thomas and a spate of errors by the guests.
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A 19-11 margin quickly became a 20-20 tie after Madison Weber’s ace, and then things really got interesting. Back-and-forth the teams went as a good crowd in Starrick Gym rocked with each point.
NCOE served for the set at 24-23, 25-24 and 26-25, but was denied. Weber and Lauren Friess teamed for a stuff block that drew Johnston City to a set point at 27-26. That was the first of four set points the Indians got, but the Cardinals quashed all four.
Finally, NCOE earned the set on a hitting error, and it carried over into the second game. Libero Abby Black served aggressively and well, fueling a 10-0 run to start the set. The margin reached 20-5, but the Indians had one last surge remaining.
They got within 24-14 and then staved off no less than seven match points, Thomas recording four kills while Bailey Weber mixed in a tip. Melton used a timeout after it got to 24-20, but Sophie Neal finally ended the growing suspense with a kill down the right sideline.
“We need more matches like this,” Melton said. “Johnston City had good outside hitters and just enough quick attacks in the middle to keep you off-guard. We had some uncharacteristic bad serves and we were just a step off, but hats off to Johnston City.”
Watts said his team’s rallies have been par for the course. The Indians trailed 10-0 in one set of a match last week at Christopher, but found a way to prevail.
“This group is very cohesive,” he said. “They do not quit and they believe they can always win.”