In a match befitting the state semifinals, the North Hall High volleyball team’s showdown with Pace Academy on Wednesday night came down to a few bounces and close calls.
The Lady Trojans just happened to be on the wrong side of them.
North Hall was denied its first-ever state championship berth by way of a 3-1 loss to the Lady Knights in Gainesville. The No. 2 seed Lady Trojans (45-11) battled to a 25-23 win in the first set before falling 25-14 in the second and 26-24 in each of the final two games.
“We were just a little bit tight,” North Hall coach Emi Hughes said. “It was a big moment, and we rallied as best as we could in the final two sets. I really think these were two evenly matched teams. … We were right there, but there were some calls that didn’t go our way.”
It was the Lady Trojans’ second straight trip to the semifinals, a stage they reached for the first time in 2016.
Despite falling short of another breakthrough season, North Hall’s seven seniors exit as the winningest class in program history. Lily Paschall, Melissa DeVerter, Autumn Tucker and Lena Strickland all flashed their usual brilliance Wednesday night, and they were joined by Caroline Brady, Savannah Miller and Holly Worden in setting a new standard for the Lady Trojans.
“They’re the best group to come through here,” Hughes said. “They’re the winningest, the most driven and they set all kinds of records. … We talked about building a tradition, and they have really left a legacy here. It’s going to be tough to match it.”
Those seniors rallied the team from sizeable deficits in both the third and fourth sets, claiming a 24-22 edge in each game. But third-seeded Pace Academy (28-11) reeled off four straight points to win both sets and punch its ticket to the Class 3A state championship Saturday.
“We had a lot of respect for North Hall coming into this match,” Lady Knights coach Anna Bush said. “Many times we felt tense, and they had our backs against the wall in those last two sets. For us to come back as a young team in front of a loud crowd, that was amazing.”
Oddly enough, youth is what carried Pace Academy against a veteran North Hall team.
Freshman setter Kalissa Greene expertly executed the Lady Knights cross-court, misdirection attack, sometimes lobbing balls backward for tall sophomore outside hitters Ada Jane Agolli and Lucy Ferry.
Agolli was particularly effective, racking up a match-high 24 kills as Pace Academy did the majority of its work from the left side of the net. Junior outside hitter Alexandra Baker totaled 18 kills — including three straight in the crucial third set that brought the Lady Knights to set point after they trailed 24-22 — while Ferry produced nine kills.
“(Agolli) was good. We knew they’d go to her,” Hughes said. “They had some good hits at pivotal moments.”
But Agolli also gave North Hall trouble with seven aces, and the final two came in quick succession to clinch the fourth set.
With the game tied at 24-all, the sophomore scorched a serve that landed close to the left-hand line and was ruled in bounds. The call drew criticism from the huge Lady Trojans crowd, and officials appeared to disagree about the play while Hughes huddled her team during a timeout.
Agolli’s next serve skipped off the top of the net and slowly fell to the court between three North Hall players, sending Pace Academy to the state championship for the second straight season.
“We’re not a tricky team with what we do. We played to our strengths tonight,” Bush said. “I was really worried about this game because of (North Hall’s) seniors. Seniors just have a way of making things happen.”
The Lady Trojans’ upperclassmen did just that.
Paschall matched Greene’s excellent setting, which often led to frantic and lengthy volleys between the two squads. On the night when she was honored for 3,500 career assists, the senior dished out plenty more, mostly to classmates DeVerter (19 kills) and Tucker (15).
“They’re our go-tos, and they have been for four years,” Hughes said. “I really can’t say enough about the way Lily orchestrated our offense tonight.”
North Hall will be without all of them as it moves on from the most dominant stretch in program history in 2018. This year’s seniors advanced to at least the third round of the playoffs all four years and were the first group to make it to the semifinals.
They almost reached the state championship match, too, and Hughes will be drawing on their successes for a long time.
“They’re all great players, and all seven of them have helped rally us throughout the whole season,” Hughes said. “ … It’s the intangibles and seeing what this senior group has done here and the example that they’ve set. We’ll be young next year, but we’ll be all right.”