On to the finals

Kerr-Vance Academy volleyball player Katelyn Balentine (center) makes a play on the ball during her team’s 3-1 victory over Cape Fear Christian Academy on Tuesday evening, which advanced them into the NCISAA 1A championship for the fourth consecutive year.

HENDERSON — For the fourth consecutive year, the NCISAA 1A championship in volleyball will feature Kerr-Vance Academy, which withstood a vigorous assault from Cape Fear Christian Academy on Tuesday evening to win 3-1.

A win was far from assured for the Spartans because Cape Fear put together scoring runs on several different occasions. But head coach Casey Ellington was thrilled that her players maintained their composure to grind out a hard-fought win.

“This is probably the first team we’ve played in our league that came wanting to win,” Ellington said. “We played at our level today, if not better than we’ve ever played before, so I’m more than proud of everyone.”

Entering the matchup, Ellington expected Cape Fear to hit the ball deep into KVA’s territory, and she devised a game plan that ensured her players would be prepared for whatever Cape Fear decided to throw at them.

When the game began, Cape Fear mixed up its strategy and attacked KVA on every part of their court. Those tactics worked for the visitors, who pulled ahead 13-10 in the first set, forcing Ellington to call a timeout.

KVA would go down by as many as five points, but some well-executed serves from junior Courtney Tuck, combined with a couple of errors from Cape Fear, got the Spartans back in contention. The set would be extended following one last run from Cape Fear, but KVA managed to hang on for a 27-25 win.

Ellington’s squad got a much better start in the second set, but they were slow to pull away from the sturdy Cape Fear unit before scoring a 25-18 victory, which gave them a 2-0 overall lead.

Despite this, Cape Fear shifted the momentum back into its favor with a strong third set that saw them take advantage of several openings on KVA’s side of the court. They proceeded to win by a score of 25-22 — marking the first time all year that an opponent forced the Spartans to play a fourth set.

Sensing that Cape Fear was preparing to make a charge for the win, Ellington gathered her players in the huddle during the ensuing intermission to remind them of everything that made KVA great at volleyball and to not have any fear when it came to making crucial plays.

“I think the girls were getting down on themselves and weren’t sure if they had the confidence to get this win,” Ellington said. “I know they didn’t want to go into a fourth set, but we told them not to let [Cape Fear] into this game. They were hesitating to go after the ball and I think they might have been scared about making a mistake, but overall the girls did great.”

KVA began the final set by exchanging several ties with Cape Fear, but self-inflicted mistakes initially prevented them from overtaking their opponent. KVA eventually surged ahead to take a small lead, only to be challenged by Cape Fear yet again.

Fatigue had set in on both sides by the time the fourth set came to a close, but KVA summoned enough energy to formally put the game away and earn another trip to the NCISAA 1A championship with a 25-18 set victory.

Ellington considers herself honored that she was able to help lead KVA back to the state championship in her first year as the program’s head coach, but she knows that her players will have to be prepared both physically and mentally on Saturday if they want to bring home a third consecutive NCISAA 1A title to the school

“I want to condition the girls to the point where they are not exhausted,” Ellington said. “Going to four sets and playing their butts off really wore them out and they weren’t prepared for that. We need to work on not getting tired and we also have to improve our passing a little bit because it was all over the place [against Cape Fear].”

The Spartans will have a familiar opponent for the NCISAA 1A championship, Lee Christian, which they defeated 3-0 for the title in 2018. The two programs will meet each other at KVA on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m.