Don’t think just because they’re having a little fun in the sun over in Thailand that I’ve forgotten about the college season. This is an important match for NC State. They come in as the third-place team in the ACC, and look to be in line for a ticket to the NCAA tournament, but if they should lose to lowly Wake Forest that would be a big detriment to their resume. Wake thus have the chance to play spoiler, and while Duke/UNC is the big, storied rivalry, the four North Carolina schools always love to bring it against one another, no matter the sport or specific matchup.
The Demon Deacons are led by top scorer Andrea Beck, who averages three and a half kills per set (good for third in the ACC) and a solid .306 hitting percentage for the season. As a team, though, Wake Forest swings at a paltry .189 clip, which goes to show why they’re 8-15 overall and just 2-9 in a mediocre volleyball conference. The best scorer for the Wolfpack is probably junior middle blocker Brie Merriwether, who enters the match within shouting distance of 200 kills for the season and a plus-.300 hitting clip of her own. In moderately limited playing time, sophomore middle Aleshia Wilson has nearly a .400 hitting percentage and more than a block a set, which would be staggering over a complete season.
In contrast to a lot of college teams, both schools run a traditional one-setter offense such as you typically see at the international level. Fifth-year senior Megan Cyr runs the offense for the Wolfpack and is a major leader for the squad.
Some long rallies started the match, but the scoring was mostly sideout after sideout at first. Beck led the way for Wake with two strong kills through single blocks, a matchup that she’s gonna win far more often than not.
At 7-7, NC State’s Hannah Thompson made a terrific hustle play to save a wayward ball — and paid the price by slamming into the back wall. The Wolfpack took the point and could have had the momentum sway to their side, but Wake responded with a kill of their own off the hand of 6-foot-2 setter Danae Rosendall. NC State at last went up 2 at 10-8 with a rare hitting error from Beck, but she responded with her fourth kill of the set to bring it back within one, and then her fifth to draw it even again at 10. The libero Alston Kearns re-established the ‘pack’s 2-point edge at 12-10 with a nice service ace. 13-12 was the point of the match, with several great digs on both sides of the net, with NC State keeping their advantage.
NC State drew it even again at 14 with another big block from Andrea Beck. Her teammate Jazmen Russell made it a block party, putting Wake up for the first time at 15-14. Beck again came up big after the timeout to put the Deacons up by two. She was error-free through the first set. NC State ran it back to 18-16 on Wilson’s serve, and Wake called time. One of the commentators perhaps inadvertently exposed the BS of the other, when one said “Limiting the errors will be key tonight.” The response? “And every night.” No duh! The set remained mostly even as it went on, with the Deacons re-taking the lead at 21-20 on Beck’s service ace. That prompted NC State to call their second timeout.
Rosendall made a very smart and timely dink coming back from the timeout — she wasn’t facing even a singe blocker. But the Wolfpack evened the set again at 22 — whoever won this first set was going to earn it. After a Wolfpack kill to go up 23-22, Wake took their second timeout of the set. The Deacons made an iffy choice coming out of the timeout to go with a back-row attack, which went straight into the block. Facing set point, Wake sided out and then staved off the second on their serve. Wake staved off another set point at 25-24 with a swing off the block and out. The Wolfpack got to another set point at 26-25 with a sneaky soft shot by Merriwether. Russell made it through the block on that point, though, to knot it again at 26. NC State got yet another set point at 27-26 following a service error, and finally put it away with a greatly-timed block solo from Nikki Glass.
Wake took the first two points of the second set, but NC State responded by running off three of their own, capitalizing on a miscue on the Deacons’ side of the net for an easy kill for the setter Cyr. They went up two for the first time at 6-4 with a powerful smash by Merriwether off the block and out, and a sneaky soft shot at 8-6. Wake ran back to 8-8 on the strength of a service ace, but NC State ran off three again to re-take the lead prior to a Wake timeout. I noticed that the scoreboard clock in Reynolds Gym had 1:15 on it — timeouts are only supposed to be one minute long.
The match of runs continued from 13-10, as Wake drew even at 13 with a block from Rosendall and Beck. They ran it up to 16-14 in advance of NC State’s first timeout of the set. A miscommunication on the Wolfpack side of the net brought it to 17-15, as a soft shot fell in when the front-row player tried to punch it back to the back row just as her teammate was diving forward to dig the initial shot. It fell in harmlessly. 17-16 was a terrific long rally, with the ball traveling a long distance vertically, ending with NC State drawing even again at 17. The ‘pack again went up two at 20-18 in advance of Wake’s second and final timeout of the set. The Wolfpack blew an opportunity at 21-19 when Wake’s offense was sloppy and they had to send over a free ball. The resultant hit from NC State went straight into the block. After the Deacons held serve to tie it yet again at 21, NC State called their last timeout of the set. But Wake took the first three back from the timeout on the serve of freshman libero Megan Miller, the last of them on a net violation from the veteran Cyr. The Wolfpack staved off the first set point at 24-21, but Beck brought her team to halftime happy with a kill to end the second set.
Wolfpack coach Bryan Bunn was surprisingly frank in a brief interview in between sets two and three — he said his team had let a potential 2-0 lead slip right through their hands when they whiffed at 21-19.
NC State went out ahead early in the third set, to 5-1 after after Glass scored three straight with a dandy kill in between two halves of a double block and then a pair of service aces. Kristin Grissom worked hard for the point at 5-3, making three straight leaping block attempts and finally scoring on the last. The Deacons drew even at 5 on the next point, and the crowd was very much into it. 7-6 was a remarkable rally, with NC State libero Kearns kicking the ball to keep it alive as it was heading long, but it was for naught as the point went to Wake. One of the commentators suggested that Kearns may have been a soccer player “in a past life.” The Demon Deacons’ run extended to 10-7 before NC State finally called time. The run extended after the timeout with some smart sneaky shots as well as a double contact call against the ‘pack to make it 14-7. NC State called their second timeout at that point. After the match had been defined by copious mini-runs of 2 and 3 points to this point, Wake Forest began to assert some major dominance.
Back from the timeout, the run extended even further with an emphatic swing from Ashlee Rusk after the suddenly lost-looking Wolfpack had their offense break down badly. NC State finally scored again at 16-7 to draw within eight, but the damage was long since done. The Wolfpack may have come into the match seeming like the team with more offensive options, but in this third set the Demon Deacons impressively exerted control without relying heavily on their big star Beck. The ball actually hit the up referee on the back on 18-11, something I’m not sure I’ve ever seen before. It was pretty much even from that point, with the Deacons finishing it off 25-19 to go up 2-1.
The fourth set started off very evenly again. At 3-3, NC State libero Kearns made another great athletic play to run after a wayward ball and keep it alive — with her hands this time. But it put the ‘pack way out of system after the resulting free ball, giving the Deacons a pretty easy kill. The set continued with mostly sideout after sideout until the Wolfpack went up 7-5 with a very strong block at the net and another sneaky soft shot. One of the rare cringe-inducing hitting attempts from either side, really, got it to 8-5 as Rusk sent a ball about five feet long. Wake called time at that point.
Rusk redeemed herself with a block solo after the timeout to draw Wake back within two. A very long rally on 9-8 ended sort of disappointingly with a net violation called against Wake. The Wolfpack re-established their 3-point lead at 12-9 as Merriwether won a tight joust at the net. Just the second hitting error of the match for Beck put the Wolfpack up 13-9, and Cyr’s kill to bring it to 14-9 prompted the second timeout from Wake.
Wake took four of the first five out of the timeout to draw within two at 15-13. The Wake Forest hitting got NC State out of system, leading to sloppy overpassing and easy opportunities back on the Deacons’ side. But from 15-13, the Wolfpack kept the Deacons from drawing even by rattling off four straight. Glass was the big star of this run with a couple of powerful kills and a timely block. From 19-13, Wake made a little headway, drawing to 22-17. But NC State took control again from there, closing it out 25-17.
NC State went out to a quick 4-0 lead in the decider, seeming energized from their fourth-set win while Wake looked a little fatigued. After a service ace to make it 4-0, Wake called time. The Deacons stayed tenacious coming back from the timeout, and got on the board with a double block at the end of a very long rally. After the Wolfpack hit the ball into the antenna, Beck brought her side back within one with a nicely executed slide play. She evened the set on the next point, off the block and out, but Wake gave the Wolfpack the lead right back with a service error. Those will kill you in a deciding set.
The Wolfpack re-established a 2-point lead at 6-4 on the next ball getting it through Beck, and re-established their 4-point lead at 8-4 to get to the side change. NC State had a chance to go up 10-5, but a bad set from the libero Kearns went out of went out of bounds. They managed not to let the momentum shift, as they ran out to 11-7 with a big frontline block. Wake ran it to back to within two at 11-9, prompting a Wolfpack timeout. What a match!
At 12-10, Wake’s offense was kind of disrupted by a seeming miscommunication, and what was supposed to be a free ball fell harmlessly out of bounds on the NC State side. The Demon Deacons took their last timeout there, down 13-10. A timely swing from Russell and a block double led by Beck drew the Demon Deacons back within one, and an NC State net violation knotted the set at 13. The Wolfpack took their last timeout there. Back from the timeout, Rusk gave Wake the first match point of the night with a nifty line shot, but the Wolfpack staved it off. Beck’s swing off the block and out gave the Deacons their second match point. To the delight of the home fans, she put it away in the back corner of the court to end it.
Wake Forest d. North Carolina State (26-28, 25-22, 25-19, 17-25, 16-14)
Well that was a hell of a lot better than it had any business to be. After two fiercely competitive back-and-forth sets, each side won one that was not competitive in the least, and the fifth set was a nail-biter to the final point.
This match was Wake Forest’s “Dig Pink” match. I’m generally disdainful of these promotions, as they lead people to believe that simply wearing a pink shirt to a sporting event means they’ve “done their part” to combat a deadly disease (when they haven’t in fact done anything). But Wake Forest head coach Heather Kahl Holmes is herself a breast cancer patient (such that she’s delegated some duties to assistant coach Chad Willis — it was actually he who called all of Wake’s timeouts). The commentators suggested that this contributed to an especially strong home court atmosphere for the Deacons, one which the Wolfpack weren’t quite able to overcome. The Deacons have just two seniors on their roster. One, naturally, is Beck, so she’ll be a big loss next season, but otherwise this is a young team with lots of room to improve.
I think this loss exposes NC State a little. For as competitive as it was, and for as much as conference road matches are never easy, Coach Bunn said it himself — they should have gone up 2-0 and let the opportunity slip through their fingers. They’re probably going to make the NCAA tournament anyway, but any further slipups and they could find themselves out. And in any case, blowing that opportunity against such a team as Wake Forest doesn’t speak highly of their chances when they go up against tournament competition.