BLOUNTVILLE, Tenn. - The TSSAA plays just six or seven weeks of volleyball to get to this point of its season, which is no longer called do-or-die time.
Sullivan Central coach Logan Kemp and this generation of kids naturally would have their own 21st Century terms, in reference to the 2019 District 1-AA tournament that began Monday night at the Dickie Warren Dome.
“We were able to start our week well by starting the tournament well, which is always a good thing, especially in a win-or-go-home situation,” Kemp said.
All the favorites began their week well, each sweeping to straight-set wins.
Second-seeded Elizabethton opened play with a 25-11, 25-9, 25-10 rout of No. 7 Chuckey-Doak, before third-seeded Central bonked No. 6 Johnson County 25-14, 25-12, 25-5. In the more-competitive nightcap, No. 4 Sullivan East handled No. 5 Unicoi County 26-24, 25-14, 25-21.
Tracy Graybeal, a head coach for 20 years, including the last two seasons at Sullivan East, liked what she saw out of her Patriots.
Just last week, Unicoi County had come to East and grabbed a five-set win.
“We came out a little slow tonight, but I think that’s due to the added pressure that comes with it being the district tournament,” Graybeal said. “We’re still super young out there, but what I saw from these girls was that we would not give up, even when we got behind there at the start of that third game.
“And that’s the kind of mentality we’ve got to have moving forward.”
The Blue Devils, blown out the second set after seeing the first set slip away at the end, led the third game by an 8-2 count before it turned.
Gracey Byrd (10 kills) and Zoe Johnson (seven) brought the Patriots back in that third game with their play at the net, both living large off the 30 assists distributed by setter Ashton Adkins.
Hayley Grubb, a sophomore libero, produced 25 digs.
And now Graybeal’s young troops get a shot at top-seeded Sullivan South, a traditional power, in tonight’s 6 o’clock semifinal, before Elizabethton faces Central in the 7:30 semi.
At stake is a spot in next week’s Region 1-AA tournament for both winners.
“As far as ability goes, I’ve never doubted these kids one bit,” Graybeal said. “They’re young and sometimes they’re not as mentally tough as I’d like them to be, but we’ve played South tough both times this year, so ...
“This time of year, you never know what can happen.”
In Central’s win over the Longhorns, the Cougars (16-11) were never pushed.
“We executed well and moved the ball around well because of our passing,” Kemp said. “With good passing and good serve-receive, we were able to get into our system pretty well out there.”
Elaina Vaughan had nine kills to pace the Cougars offensively, while Laiken Hoback delivered 19 assists. Parker Hurd’s six digs led the defense.
Taking out Elizabethton won’t be easy, but Kemp is keeping the faith.
“Elizabethton has a really good team,” Kemp said. “This is the fourth time we’re playing them this season, so we know what to expect.
“We’ve just got to make sure we’re ready to play. We’ve got to be ready to go from the minute we step onto that floor.”