By Pete Zamplas
West Henderson volleyballers dethroned reigning 3A state champion Marvin Ridge Saturday in a 3-2 post-Halloween “Thriller,” to get to within two victories of the state title.
West won the opening game (“set”) by 25-18. The visitors took the next two by 25-20 then 25-9, and led the fourth game much of the way.
But West turned it on, winning six points in a row to seize a 20-18 lead then win 25-21. West then took the finale 15-12, to triumph 3-2 and avenge a loss in the 2018 state semifinals.
Coach Tiffany Lowrance’s West Henderson (29-6), the West Region’s second seed, next played at number one West Rowan (28-0) Tuesday in a clash of West Falcon squads. The winner advances to the state title match this Saturday.
The teams have each played three of their first five playoff matches against each other’s conference — in rounds two, three and five. WHHS swept Jesse Carson 3-0, then beat North Piedmont runner-up South Iredell 3-1 with a 31-29 win in game three.
Conversely, West Rowan edged A.C. Reynolds 3-2, then beat T.C. Roberson 3-1.
West Henderson and Roberson tied atop the Western Mountain Athletic Conference at 14-2, a game ahead of ACR (13-3). North Henderson was fourth at 10-6. WHHS won the WMAC tournament by defeating Erwin 3-0, ACR 3-1 then TCR 3-0. Senior Kinsley Morgan calls it “validating” to beat local arch-rivals, to confirm “we’re even better.” That rubber match win over Roberson was sweet. West led TCR 2-0 and was up big in the third game Sept. 25, but the Lady Rams won. “We let up,” senior Addison Hichman said. “We weren’t mentally tough enough.”
Since then, West put away foes. West beat TCR 3-1 at home Aug. 29, also in ’18 playoffs. West also split with ACR.
This marked the second season in a row in which West won WMAC regular-season and tourney crowns. Last year, West went 15-1 — a game better than ACR — and finished 32-3. Hichman welcomes a “target on our backs.”
This fall, WHHS then opened playoffs 3-0 over North Buncombe.
Marvin Ridge (30-4), from near Statesville, won the 2018 3A state title after defeating West at home in a semifinal/round five. The Rams also beat West Aug. 24 in the Border Battle tourney. But this postseason, the teams met in Mills River and in a round earlier.
Both conference champs have shut out foes 25 times, which West did in ’18 as well. They blend tremendous spiking (“hitting”) with split-second retrievals (“digs”) or blocks, and even finesse. In the final game a Mav tapped the ball but it was within reach of West’s double blockers America Anderson and Caitlyn O’Kelly and West tapped it back for the point.
Anderson slammed a winner to clinch the opening game at 25-18. The Mavs jumped in G2 to a 14-6 lead, and scored four in a row after West closed to 16-15. Malia Moore’s block cut the lead to 22-20. Marvin Ridge won 25-20, then cruised 25-9 as West often shot wide.
Coach Lowrance implored her Lady Falcons to toughen up. They did in game four, a 25-21 thriller. West led 5-1 on Anderson’s block. The Mavs got five points in a row for a 10-7 lead. The teams traded points, for six points in a row. The Mavs got the next three, and led 18-14.
West’s finest spurt ensued — six points in a row, to lead 20-18. The last of those points was from an O’Kelly block, then as Morgan’s spike was blocked out of bounds. West’s student spirit section jumped up and down and chanted. West snatched back momentum.
Slams by outside hitter Katrina Kordonowy then Moore made it 22-19. Setter Bailey Lance served an ace, for a four-point lead. Kordonowy hit the winning point, for 25-21.
The teams went at it for the final, deciding fifth game. West scored four in a row — including on that tap back — to lead 5-3. You can’t beat us!,” Falcon student fans boldly chanted. Marvin Ridge swiped an 8-6 lead.
West fired off four consecutive points — lastly on O’Kelly’s tap — to lead 10-8. Moore registered two slams and a block as West kept up pressure. The Lady Falcons led 13-9 on Moore’s spike, 14-10, and won it all at 15-12 on Kordonowy’s slam.
“My heart was throbbing with every point,” Moore said. “It was so exciting. I’m very thrilled we won.” She said “we pulled together as a team” when trailing, to rally to victory.
Daija Jackson also made many key hits, often teaming with Anderson leaping together as middle blockers and slammers.
The Mavs’ sparkplug was junior Mac Russ. A critical shot was Anderson’s slam that smashed into Russ’ nose, after Russ whiffed on the block. That bloodied the star onto the sidelines midway. She returned, but was less imposing. Other Mavs stepped up, but so did Lady Falcons to prevail.
Coach Lowrance said “we were soft” in game three, but toughened as players “picked each other up” emotionally to spark scoring spurts. West better focused on shots, and exuded controlled intensity, she said. “We were more aggressive, and played to win.”
Her mother, Jan Erickson Stanley, founded West volleyball in 1975. Tiffany succeeded her at the helm in 2010. They both got players to shout out about “pride,” in breaking huddles. Tiffany is more vocal during matches, said current assistant coach Allyson Corhn Warren. She was a setter in 2003-04 squad — one of West’s five state champion volleyball seasons. “Tiffany is fiery, very intense,” she said. “They both love the players — as athletes, students and people.” Tiffany’s husband Robbie Lowrance is the other assistant.
In a recent match, Tiffany Lowrance high-fived players on the bench. “She motivates us with her words, and with clapping and cheering us on,” senior Allison Pierce said. Morgan said Lowrance fosters “family” togetherness.
Players also relish home fans’ chants and cheers. Morgan said “they’re passionate.” “They pump us up,” Pierce said. Coach Lowrance said, “the girls and I do feed off of” fan enthusiasm.
West Henderson’s seven seniors are (in numerical order) Morgan, Bailee Ashe, Lance, Kordonowy, Olivia Wright, Hichman, and Pierce. The eight juniors are Moore, Selah Humiston, Tia Howard, Julia Parent, Jackson, Sophie Brown, McKenna Daley, and Anderson. Sole sophomore O’Kelly is among 5-foot-11 hitters. West Rowan and Marvin Ridge each have merely three seniors, and are apt to run into West next year.
West Henderson players enjoy being role models, and continuing the championship tradition. “People look up to you,” Hichman said. Morgan said excelling on-court and in class and community is “about more than us. It’s about the program’s legacy.”