As I mentioned last week, sometimes the strongest memories aren’t positive ones.
In an ongoing series of the most memorable high school games I’ve covered in 6½ years, there’s bound to be a dud or two. That’s the case for the next memory in the series, the West Carteret volleyball team’s 2016 state playoff loss to Chapel Hill.
The powerhouse Tigers were 22-5 and ranked No. 5 in the 3A classification, while the Patriots were 22-2 and ranked No. 11. I’m not an idiot – I understand that programs in metropolitan Raleigh and Charlotte have a monstrous advantage over those on the fringe – but this felt like a magical year for West.
The Patriots were red-hot all season, losing only to No. 9-ranked 4A New Bern and D.H. Conley, the No. 2-ranked team in the 4A that knocked out New Bern in the postseason and wound up reaching the state championship semifinals. West swept the majority of its 21 regular season matches, giving up only two sets apiece to No. 23-ranked 2A Croatan and No. 32-ranked 3A Jacksonville, and one to No. 27-ranked 2A South Lenoir.
The Patriots won five straight to close out the regular season and manhandled its first three postseason matchups. They swept Western Harnett 3-0 and beat Northwood 3-1. Then they swept Southwestern Randolph 3-0, two sets of which were played in front of a raucous student section made up of football players who came out to support the spikers after practice.
A parent of the visiting team cruelly but correctly pointed out that only paying viewers could attend a N.C. High School Athletic Association (NCHSAA) playoff match, forcing the players to vacate the gym. Then-athletic director Craig McClanahan told me later he wished he’d thought of the idea to pay the group’s way in so they could continue cheering. By the time he had thought of it and went outside to reassemble the players, the majority of them had gone home for the day.
The Patriots enjoyed the support, but they didn’t need it. They already had plenty, especially for the fourth-round matchup with Chapel Hill. I was pretty excited when I showed up at the gym. It was packed, complete with a student section, which is so incredibly rare for any sport not named football and boys basketball.
Then I saw the Tigers roll up to the parking lot in a swanky tour bus and walk in to the gym, all 18 of them fitted with matching all-black Under Armor backpacks. I know it’s a small thing, but it was intimidating, and rightfully so. That’s when the reality of vastly differing athletics budgets came crashing on top of me.
For the first two sets of that match, West looked bound for state championship glory. It dominated the visitors with huge kills from juniors Grace Tulevech and Victoria Healey and seniors Emily Sullivan and Kylie Winchell. There have been a lot of great front-line rotations in this county during my time here, but that group was on another level. Tulevech went on to play Division I volleyball, for cripes’ sake. That doesn’t really happen in this county.
That team’s back line was held down by senior libero Meghan Jones and bolstered by Meade Varner, Mikayla Moreno and Rhegan Jones.
The Patriots took a 2-0 set lead in the match, and the gym was absolutely insane. There are few basketball games in that gym that held the same energy.
At some point between the second and third set, though, the switch flipped.
To this day, I’m not exactly sure what happened, and I’m not exactly sure West does either. There was no horrific stretch of bad plays nor a run of errors. Suddenly, the momentum had just flipped, and it became painfully clear over the next three sets that Chapel Hill was the better team in that moment. After losing the first two sets 26-24, 25-23, the Tigers won the last three 25-22, 25-11, 15-6.
I’ve seen a lot of heartbreak with this job, but that one was right up there with the worst of them. I’m willing to bet only the East Carteret girls soccer team’s state championship loss trumps this one. By the time the fifth set was winding down, the shock had mostly worn off for Patriot fans. That’s when the tears set in, when the season was over for those girls in the blink of an eye.
It helped that West was bringing back a lot of talent – and they would end up benefitting from a pair of Topsail transfers the following year, as well – but that run in 2016 felt the most magical.
The next year’s postseason ending proved that when West fell again to Chapel Hill, but more decisively, 3-0 in the regional semifinal.
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