Top seed Harnett Central came into Wednesday's All American Conference Volleyball Tournament final looking for redemption against No. 2 Terry Sanford.
ANGIER — Senior captain Ivanna Jones proudly positioned a glistening All American Conference trophy towards the ceiling, officially signaling the ensuing celebration with her Harnett Central teammates at home Wednesday.
As the visitors silently spectated the ceremonious show from a distance, Jones was reminded of how different a scene it was just two weeks prior when Terry Sanford handed her team a 3-0 loss on the same court.
It was a defeat that evened the regular-season series, setting the stage for a redemptory effort as the top two seeds clashed in the league's first-ever tournament final.
"Well first, we had to talk about that dog in us," Jones said after totaling a team-leading 11 kills in the straight-sets victory over No. 2 Terry Sanford.
"We needed to make sure our energy was high, and from the jump, we couldn't get down and play slow or lazy ... because we knew it was our home floor and we needed that revenge."
With the victory, Central (17-7, 13-1 AAC) claims the outright All American title and is guaranteed a home matchup when the state playoff brackets are released Thursday afternoon.
"It's just so surreal to me and it's just a blessing. ... We've worked day in and day out since June and I knew it was our time to come out and show what we had," added Jones.
"This is Harnett Central volleyball and no one can take that away from us."
Central coach Ashley Gaines was disturbed by the group's effort level in the Oct. 6 matchup and used it as fuel for a five-game win streak.
"Terry Sanford came ready to compete and they knocked us in the mouth when they came to see us the first time," Gaines said.
"Since then, I've continued to bring that game up– what that felt like. ...Tonight, it was a totally different team."
Wednesday's tiebreaker saw Gaines' bunch initiate the proverbial first blows, igniting a rowdy fanbase with every spike and dive.
After claiming a 25-20 opening-set victory, the Lady Trojans raced out to an early 8-3 advantage in the second, forcing a Lady Bulldogs timeout.
Jones ended the frame with five kills, while Lilly Gervase added four of her 10 spikes in the stanza to help earn a 25-18 win and go up two sets.
Central would take another commanding lead in the third, posting a 9-1 run that was punctuated by a Sinai Avalos-Beltran kill that forced another timeout from the visitors.
But Terry Sanford wouldn't go away quietly, and eventually scored six unanswered points minutes later to draw within two, 12-10.
The Lady Trojans would use a run of their own to grow the lead to as much as eight points and keep a healthy distance, setting up KeErica Snead's final punch-down that gave way to the court-storming session to follow.
"It feels really good to end it off strong, especially this being my last year and the last conference game I will have on this court," said Snead, a senior middle hitter finishing with three kills and tying the team lead with three blocks.
"It's something really memorable."
Gaines spoke highly of the veteran net player who has steadily improved this season after serving a supporting role last year.
"Keke, I think, has just come out and surprised so many people this season," Gaines said.
"She's really come out of her shell. Whether she is blocking for us or she has a kill here and there, it's very timely and it just feeds into the energy the girls have."
As the group soaked in the spoils during its postgame dances and impromptu photoshoot sessions, Snead recalled the winless struggle to open the 2021 campaign and how far her squad has come.
"It was a rough start, but once we started getting comfortable playing together – moving together in harmony, it worked out really good," she said.
Gaines says she was equally reflective, even sharing how moved she was during the national anthem.
"It all hit me at once. How hard the girls have worked to come back from that 0-4 start to make a statement in the conference. To be No. 1 (seed) and be fighting for a conference championship," Gaines said.
"And just seeing that last point, it was like all their hard work had paid off. ... I was overwhelmed with emotion. Those girls are near and dear to my heart and I could not have asked them to play any better than they did tonight.
Now, Central prepares for yet another postseason appearance, winners of six straight.
Though Jones says they are going to enjoy the conference title, she insisted that her team has bigger goals in mind.
"It's not over yet," Jones said with a stern tone.
"We finished one feat, but we still have to go into practice– continue pushing. We can't get comfortable. We have to go out and play how we did tonight every time."
The first round of this year's 3A state playoff games are scheduled to begin Saturday, Oct. 23
Beltran ended with six kills and tied the team lead in aces (five) and digs (nine), while Carlie Love had a team-high 16 assists with five aces and nine digs in the win.
Donnell Coley can be reached at email@example.com or (910) 230-2040.