North Wilkes ended its pre-conference schedule with a single loss. The East Wilkes Cardinals ended theirs with only one win.

But records didn’t matter Thursday evening in Hays, when the Cardinals visited the Vikings and gave the home team all it could handle in the Mountain Valley Athletic Conference opener for both squads. 

Ultimately, the 3-1 Vikings’ win was decided by a marathon third set, where the Cardinals got off to a fast start and the Vikings battled back to tie the game up at 21-all.

What happened next was a thrilling back-and-forth where both teams had opportunities to close out the set. It finally took a kill from the fist of Stacie Shumate – set up beautifully by senior setter Savannah Royall – to end things at 28-26, staking North Wilkes to a 2-1 game advantage. 

Both coaches mentioned the word “communication” after the match when discussing the third set’s pivotal moments. 

“Somewhere in the middle of that third set we just started communicating more,” said North Wilkes Head Coach Samantha Smith, whose team improved to 5-1 overall and 1-0 in league play. “And the better we communicate, the better energy we have.”

“We got a little discouraged at the way the set was progressing, at things honestly out of our control, and we stopped communicating the way we did earlier in the match,” said East Wilkes Head Coach Kassandra Gage. 

North Wilkes started out strongly, and seemed to have the first set well in hand. And while the Vikings prevailed in the opener 25-18, a late rally by Cardinals closed the gap from an earlier ten-point deficit and shifted momentum towards the visitors. 

Once set two began the Cardinals assumed control, building an initial 11-3 advantage after two aces and two unforced North errors during a service run from Aubrey Wallis, who enjoyed a strong night overall.

The Vikings chipped into that deficit, and closed to within 13-11 after a kill from Shumate off the left side. But East Wilkes pulled back out to a comfortable margin with the help of a service run from Monica Shaver and claimed the set 25-18.

“We really pushed and capitalized on some good things in that second set,” said Gage. “Watching them play together and play aggressively, I was thinking that’s the team I thought we could be from the start of the season.”

The Cardinals dominated early on in set three, too, and were up by as much as six, at 16-10, when Brooke Ward recorded a kill near the net. 

But the Vikings fought back to tie the match at 21-all after an off-speed point from Madison Byrd on the left found the floor.

Both teams had chances to close the other squad out, and the team’s traded points into overtime before Shumate finally closed the set out with her shot.

The Vikings continued to play inspired after the comeback, and led from the get-go in set four. And after an ace from Royall landed just inside the back line for the 25-19 tally in the game and match.

“We just fell flat early on,” said Smith. “Our serve/receive, which has been a strong point, struggled. Credit for that goes to East Wilkes. They have some very strong servers, and their ability to score points off serve affected us mentally.”

Smith credited the play of libero Chasity Stamper with part of her team’s in-match turnaround.

“We had several kids step up when we needed them to, but Chasity was all over the place again tonight,” said Smith. “She controlled the back row, served the ball well, and got people where they needed to be. She’s a great leader on and off the court.”

The Vikings went to Bakersville Monday for a rematch with the Mitchell Mountaineers (North Wilkes won the first meeting 3-0). Tonight another in-county match awaits, this time against Wilkes Central in Hays.

East Wilkes also faces a county rival tonight when West Wilkes comes to Ronda. The Blackhawks are perfect this fall and have yet to drop a set though four-straight wins. And while a match with West Wilkes will be tough, Gage hopes the effort against North will carry forward into the remainder of the conference schedule. 

“I’m proud of how the girls continued to fight, and how we had a chance to win the third game tonight and really control the momentum,” said Gage. “We have to continue to play that way in this conference. We ran out of steam a little, but we also saw how well we can play.”

North Wilkes also claimed the evening’s JV affair, beating the Cardinals 2-1. 

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