North Hall volleyball coach Emi Hughes put her hands above her head, closed her eyes and took a long, deep breath as she made her way back to the bench Tuesday evening.
Her team, including five seniors who she’s worked with for all four years, has been a part of more drama, more comeback efforts, more adversity than she cares to remember.
And she’ll be more than happy to continue riding that emotional rollercoaster for at least one more week.
The No. 2 seed Lady Trojans (31-10, 7-1 in Area 8-AAAA) came back from a set down to defeat No. 3 seed North Oconee 14-25, 25-21, 25-17 in the second round of the area tournament at North Hall High. The effort, combined with a straight sets win over Madison County (25-12, 25-12) earlier in the afternoon, helped North Hall earn a berth in the Area 8-AAAA tournament final on Thursday at Buford.
“It’s a crazy ride,” Hughes said, beaming with pride. “We’ve had this trend of needing to get our rhythm together and when we find that, we’re really working hard and getting points.”
North Oconee, for its part, gave North Hall fits in the opening stages.
The Titans’ outside hitters completed several early kills to the corners, building a quick 6-1 lead in the first set. North Hall’s Sydney Cleveland inspired a short revival when her spike helped win four of the next five points.
But North Oconee’s Lizzy Aldrich and Madison Thomas combined for the next seven points on serve to secure the 1-0 lead.
“We’ve been in this situation a lot before,” Cleveland (12 kills, three blocks, six digs) said after the match. “It’s been a case of wanting to get the win. When we finally get going, we get our confidence up and we have momentum.”
North Hall managed to fight back from an early 6-2 hole in the second set before a dominant kill by Juliana Paschall (six kills) tied the game at 10. Her effort, a cross-court shot from left to right, flew to the right of a defender’s hands and sent the pro-Trojan crowd into hysteria.
It took a sustained defensive presence to continue the Trojans’ good form. A crucial block by Julie Daniels (seven kills, two blocks, four digs) gave North Hall its first three-point advantage of the night. Jen Mullican finished off the set minutes later when her defiant hit at the net landed in-bounds.
“It’s frustrating to us and frustrating to her, I’m sure,” said senior Kalyn Dyer (two digs, one ace) of the team’s comeback attitude. “I think we can safely say we’ve been stressing [Hughes] out.”
Hughes had to restrain herself from leaping with joy when her team won six of seven points in the middle of the decisive final set. North Oconee kept it within four before a missed hit at the wall gave the Trojans the cushion they needed to secure the set and the berth in the final at Buford High School.
North Hall will host the first round of the state tournament on Oct. 15.
“We’ve never blocked that well ever before today,” said Cleveland, who leads the region in kills (307). “It’s not just one hitter or blocker, it was the whole front row, whoever moved in there. It would be pretty amazing to end the season at Buford.”
“It’s definitely surreal,” Dyer said. “I think if we play like we did today, we’ve got a great chance.”
Lily Paschall contributed 34 assists Tuesday evening to go along with three digs and a kill for the Lady Trojans.
“Our seniors have brought a spirit, an energy and an attitude to our team,” Hughes said after the win. “I’ve had them for four years and they really bring the [upperclassmen] up and ready for it. They wanted to be the No. 2 seed and we’ve got it.”