During a conversation prior to Thursday night’s nonconference volleyball match between host Hickory High and Asheville Christian Academy, Red Tornadoes head coach Jason Stephens described his team as a “Jekyll-and-Hyde” type of squad.
That description played out on the court as Hickory rallied from a set down to defeat the Lions 3-1. Asheville Christian blitzed Hickory 25-14 in the opening set before the Red Tornadoes fought out three tough sets 25-23, 25-23, 30-28.
The Lions (13-11) took advantage of sloppy play by the Red Tornadoes to win their only set. Hickory had 13 errors, including eight on kill attempts, which had much to do with Asheville Christian’s success. When the Lions were able to convert offensive opportunities, they were led by setter Katie Alexander, who assisted on all nine kills in the set to four different hitters. Paige McDonald had four of the nine kills for Asheville Christian, which led by as many as 10 points twice on the way to the win.
The second set went back and forth before Asheville Christian turned an 11-7 deficit into a 15-12 lead after kills from Avery Jackson and McDonald, as well as an ace by Alexander. Hickory (12-4) fought back and tied the score at 19 after taps from Olivia Pisel and Bren White. But three straight misfires from White pushed the Lions back up 22-19 and sent the Red Tornadoes into a timeout. Down 23-20, Hickory scored the final five points, two on kills from the back court by Pisel and libero Claire Tomlinson to end the set.
“There are times that we lose a smidge of focus before we get it back,” said Stephens. “We have a bunch of good competitors and they love to win. When things are going well, they feed off it. When it’s not, it bothers them.”
The good times were rolling for Hickory in the third set in building a 23-15 lead. Pisel spread nine assists among four different hitters to lead the offense. White had five kills in the set, while Kellen Morin added three kills and a block. Pisel kept the Lions’ defense honest with an occasional dink to add three kills.
“She’s really smart with that setter dunk,” said Stephens of Pisel, one of three seniors on the team. “She’ll try that a few times a game and a lot of times, it’s successful.”
Down 23-15, Asheville Christian got back into the set, led by Kaylee Gilkeyson’s four kills from the left side of the net. An ace by Peyton Hightower and a misfire on a spike by Hickory got the Lions within 24-23 before White put down the set clincher on the right side.
Poised to force a fifth set, Asheville Christian took a 12-8 lead before the 6-foot-3 Morin took charge at the net. The junior middle blocker put down four points on two kills and two blocks before Pisel’s dink evened the score at 14. The teams alternated points until Asheville Christian scored four straight to bounce ahead 23-19. The Lions went on to have five set points but were unable to extend the match. The combination of Pisel and Morin accounted for three kills and White added another.
Hickory’s Taylor Rose won a battle of blocks at the net to tie the score at 28 before she added a kill to set up match point. Pisel closed it out with ace for the win.
Stephens said Thursday’s match provided a good challenge ahead of Hickory’s next match at St. Stephens Monday night.
“I’d rather have this, where we had to work to win and had to get back off the mat after losing the first set at home,” said Stephens, who said the Lions offered a similar challenge to St. Stephens’ outside hitters. “I’d rather have that than walking over there after beating somebody 25-8, 25-6, and then have to play a rivalry game.”