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High school volleyball: North Hall tops Cherokee Bluff to open Area 7-3A play
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North Hall's Grace Hollifield spikes the ball during a match against Cherokee Bluff at Cherokee Bluff High School on Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018. - photo by Austin Steele

The North Hall High volleyball team split a pair of road matches in a tri-match played Tuesday in Flowery Branch. But really, only one truly mattered to its head coach.

The defending Area 7-3A champion Lady Trojans opened 7-3A play with a sweep of Cherokee Bluff (25-16, 25-14) before closing it out with a narrow loss against Class A Tallulah Falls (26-24, 25-23) on the Bears’ freshly polished floors of the high school’s gymnasium.

The environment itself was all new for North Hall (7-9, 1-0 Area 7-3A), but the Lady Trojans got off to a fast start and rarely skipped a beat against a first-year Bears program coached by Laura DeLaPerriere.

Outside hitter Dovie Williams fronted the North Hall attack with 10 kills (two aces, one block), followed  by middle hitter Grace Hollifield with seven kills and five blocks, and Madison Brock (16 digs) with eight kills and seven service aces. Maci Gillespie (21 assists) and Alexandria Bryant (three aces, five kills, 11 digs) too pitched in some plays to boost the Lady Trojans to what coach Emi Hughes felt as that first small statement to kickoff area play.

“We were just wanting to come in and be able to make somewhat of a statement, especially when you come in as an area champion,” Hughes said. “Everybody wants a piece of us, so the girls really had to settle in and not let the excitement of this first area match get the best of us.” 

In the opener, the Lady Trojans benefitted from a steady service game and nifty putaways in the attack. After quickly taking the first four points in the opening set against Cherokee Bluff, North Hall immediately watched the Bears equalize that effort with a 4-0 run of their own behind a kill by Madi Phillips. From there, both squads traded a string of long rallies, though the Lady Trojans were still able to win 11 of the next 13 points to build a comfortable lead before pulling away. 

Hollifield covered plenty of ground from the front row during that stretch, firing her first three kills of the evening while cutting off the Bears’ attack with a bevy of blocks to grant North Hall the first set.

“We kind of got into a groove, and anytime you can get Hollifield going, that’s a good thing,” Hughes said.

Cherokee Bluff’s (1-10, 0-1) enthusiasm still radiated the floor, and managed to keep things relatively close in the early going of the second set. Kills by Phillips and Sage Sutulovich twice kept the margin at two points, the latter cutting it to 13-11. The Lady Bears however saw their momentum slip as a called double contact, misfire and kill by North Hall’s Dovie Williams granted the Lady Trojans three of the next four points and elicited a Cherokee Bluff timeout. 

The Lady Trojans used a 5-0 run to take 23-13 lead. Two points later, freshman Zoe Finelli finished the match with back-to-back aces. 

Against Tallulah Falls, a contrast in size was obvious from the get go. The Lady Trojans had to rely on sound defense and tactical play against a pair of sizeable Lady Indians hitters. The result was a contested match from start to finish, North Hall holding brief, narrow leads for both sets before Tallulah Falls found timely openings. 

In the second game, the Lady Trojans leaped ahead on a 4-0 run supplemented by kills from Williams, Hollifield and an ace by junior outside hitter Caitlyn Miller. The Indians gradually fought back to make it a back-and-forth game. The Indians were able to find a small crease down 9-7, as two kills by Mali Danavall and another from Jade Mitchell toward the weak side of North Hall put Tallulah Falls back out front at 11-9. 

The see-saw continued to rock as North Hall came right back with wisely-placed balls from Hollifield and junior Brock for a 14-13 lead. North Hall clung to a two-point advantage until Danavall fired her fourth kill of the set to bring the Indians within one at 19-18. And two points later, the Lady Indians grabbed the lead for good behind back-to-back aces from setter Kate Blackburn and a dump from Danavall. 

North Hall’s Alexandria Bryant brought her squad back within one with three-consecutive aces for 24-23. But Jade Mitchell ended it for the Indians with a kill.

The nightcap loss still gave Hughes and her North Hall program a taste of what could be waiting for them further down the road in area play and the postseason.

“We know we’re gonna see good teams, and our area is a good area — and beyond that when we get to the state tournament,” said Hughes, who has guided her program to the state semifinals for the last two seasons. “These type of matches with schools we don’t usually get to see a lot are definitely great. We enjoy getting to play out of the box as well.” 

North Hall next hosts West Forsyth and Johnson on Thursday in Gainesville. Matches start at 5 p.m.

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