BLUFF CITY, Tenn. – Sullivan Central and Sullivan East met expectations Monday in the first round of the District 1-AA volleyball tournament.
Now they have the chance to exceed them.
Playing as favorites to open postseason play, No. 3 seed Central took a 25-19, 20-25, 25-14, 25-10 win over No. 6 Johnson County before No. 4 East got past No. 5 Unicoi County 25-18, 25-21, 25-13 playing in its home gym.
“We’re definitely really comfortable here and comfortable with each other,” said East senior libero Paxton Adkins.
Today, the Cougars and Patriots hope to write the same ending out of a new storyline.
Central will take on No. 2 Elizabethton – which ousted No. 7 Chuckey-Doak in a sweep to open Tuesday’s action – after losing both regular-season matchups in the Three Rivers Conference against the Cyclones. East, meanwhile, will face top-seeded Sullivan South after also dropping both Three Rivers contests against the Rebels this season.
“We’re just excited to give ourselves another opportunity and that’s a big thing,” said Central coach Logan Kemp. “We’ve fought hard and we’ve given ourselves another opportunity to face [Elizabethton] again.”
The Cougars had to fight perhaps a bit harder than they expected Monday against Johnson County after winning the first nine points of the match behind the serving of junior setter Laiken Hoback, who notched 24 assists, 11 digs and four aces on the night.
Central played shakily the rest of Game 1 before holding on to take the frame only to fall behind 14-6 in Game 2 and come up short in a comeback attempt as the Longhorns evened the match.
“We’ve beat them twice [in the regular season] so it sort of gets in our heads a little bit,” said Central senior Alyssa Giles after her nine-kill, 10-dig performance. “We sort of slack off and think that we have it already. They definitely gave us a run for our money in that one.”
Central, however, had a strong response to the challenge by the Longhorns as the Cougars won 18 of the first 24 points in Game 3 to seize back control of the match and raced to a 10-1 lead in Game 4.
“After we lost [Game 2] we knew that we had to push to finish it,” Giles said.
Taylor Wilson led Central with 10 kills and Maci Cloninger recorded 29 digs for the Cougars.
“At this time of the year it doesn’t matter what it looks like, but as long as you come out with a win at the end that’s what we’re happy with,” Kemp said. “I’m really proud of the way that they were able to fight back. Johnson County definitely came ready to play.”
East had smoother sailing Monday, never trailing in Game 1 or Game 3 and falling behind by no more than two points early in the second frame.
“I kept telling them, ‘Just keep pushing. Keep pushing along,’ ” said East coach Tracy Graybeal.
“We played a lot today just like we practiced yesterday like we were very excited but very controlled.”
Sydney Byrd led the Patriots with nine kills and Lauren Ledford, Kenzie Thomas and Gracey Byrd added five apiece with Thomas also recording four blocks.
Ashton Adkins dished out 21 assists and Mattie Gouge notched six digs for the East defense.
Should Central (16-13) or East (17-14) prevail in tonight’s season-on-the-line district semis to secure a regional berth, it would be a major breakthrough for either program.
East is chasing its first regional appearance since 2013. The Patriots lost to Sullivan North and Elizabethton, respectively, in competitive five-game thrillers in the 2014 and 2015 district semis, but will be looking to avoid a third straight season-ending sweep as the No. 4 seed against South.
“After two losses to them we’re really excited and really driven,” Paxton Adkins said. “We’re just ready – we’re ready for redemption.”
Graybeal said she’s happy with her team’s psyche heading into the clash with the perennial power Rebels.
“I believe in us,” she said. “I told them we just need to play our ball [Tuesday] night. We don’t need to try to do anything fancy. When we play our ball we are just as good as anybody.”
Central, meanwhile, will be looking to end a 14-year regional drought since the Cougars qualified for the A-AA state tournament in three out of four years from 2001-04 under the guidance of none other than Graybeal, who coached the Blountville crew from 1997-2013.
Central was bumped back up to the Class AAA level in 2005 and spent a dozen seasons competing against the area behemoths, getting as close as single point away from a regional berth in 2011 but never managing to nab a spot with a district final appearance. A youthful Central squad lost to East in the first round of the district tournament last year upon the school’s return to AA competition.
“We definitely have a lot of potential,” Giles said. “We just have to not get in our heads as much.”