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Panthers sweep SSS volleyball after early battle

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KENLY — Midway through the first set, the Smithfield-Selma volleyball team stood just four points away from taking a 1-0 lead on host North Johnston in the Tuesday, Sept. 10, match.

But ahead by seven points on the same team that had already beaten them handily earlier in the season, the game started to slip away from the Spartans. 

“Part of the issue was we have a small team. We don’t have a very deep bench, so once it starts going my girls can get winded and I think that’s what it was,” SSS head coach Christian Felan said. “They started to get a little bit tired, passes were shanked a little bit and once you get over a 20-20 match, it’s a mental challenge too.”

The Panthers won seven of the next eight points to take a 24-22 lead and continued to battle until stealing the set, 27-25. That momentum carried the home team the rest of the way to a 27-25, 25-10, 25-18 sweep of the Spartans (0-7) as North Johnston gained more confidence along the way. 

“We were kind of dragging,” head coach Nicole Davis said of the first set. “We made three or four plays, out-of-system plays at the net and we won those. And then we got a little excited and went back into the second set and played better.”

North Johnston was re-energized by the comeback in the first set and wasted little time taking control in the second. The Panthers took a generous lead on the Spartans, going on a 7-0 run midway through the set, then closed it out without much trouble by winning eight points in a row to take a 2-0 set lead.

In the second game, Davis noted she noticed a distinct improvement from senior outside hitter Hailey Medlin, who led the Panthers with six kills and four digs. 

As Medlin improved, the team fed off the energy, as the momentum of runs continued to carry the team into a third set, when the game was put away.

“It’s totally a game of momentum,” Felan said. “If you can get a good solid serve out there, you can go 10 points in a row and just reel them off as long as you’re keeping them strong and moving the ball around.”

To start the final set, the Spartans and Panthers traded points at the start and Smithfield-Selma took a 9-7 lead. From that point on, though, North Johnston went on an 18-9 run to win the game. 

At one point, the Spartans came within one point of tying the Panthers before North Johnston won eight of the last 10 points. 

Even though the Spartans lost, Felan said his team was much improved since losing to North Johnston 3-1 in the season-opener.

“Our girls are hitting the setter without making her run all over like a crazy lady,” Felan said. “The passing has definitely improved and even the serves have definitely gotten better since the first time.”

In the win, Gabby Hales contributed seven blocks for the Panthers. Individual stats from Smithfield-Selma were not provided to the Johnstonian News after the match and hadn’t been sent in as of publishing Wednesday night.