By Earl Vaughan Jr.
Gray’s Creek volleyball coach Jalesty Washington warned her players that every match could be their last.
That’s not because they were worried about losing, but rather because they had a genuine fear that new restrictions forced by the COVID-19 pandemic would bring their season to an early end.
But to her surprise and delight, Washington’s team managed to navigate its way through an abbreviated conference-only schedule with the school’s second consecutive unbeaten regular-season record in volleyball.
Granted, it was only 10 matches, but it still sends the Bears into next week’s Patriot Athletic Conference volleyball tournament unbeaten and top-seeded.
The Bears begin tournament play Monday at 6:30 p.m. on their own court against eighth-seed Westover. In a preliminary match at Gray’s Creek, No. 4 South View faces No. 5 Pine Forest at 5 p.m.
The other first-round matches Monday will be at Terry Sanford. Third seed Cape Fear faces No. 6 E.E. Smith at 5 p.m. while No. 2 Terry Sanford, which only lost to Gray’s Creek, takes on No. 7 Overhills at 6:30 p.m.
Semifinals are Tuesday and finals Thursday, all at the home court of the highest remaining seed.
Volleyball teams had to deal with a variety of protocols related to the pandemic, but Washington said her team adjusted well to them. “Every timeout, every break I give them hand sanitizer,’’ Washington said. “We’ve all gotten used to it now. It was weird at first.’’
Washington said her team is grateful just to have a chance to play. Her main concern now is getting ready to resume practice and competition after being off since Dec. 21. They had their first practice since then on Wednesday this week and were scheduled for one more workout on Saturday before tournament play Monday.
“I think my girls are a lot more motivated,’’ Washington said. “We’ve got goals we are trying to reach. We are really ready to play in the playoffs.’’
Washington expects top competition for the tournament title to come from second-place Terry Sanford along with Cape Fear and South View.
“We try not to be cocky, stay within our game and play our game,’’ Washington said.
Gray’s Creek is led by Kylie Aldridge, a two-sport star for the Bears who has committed to play softball at Virginia Tech.
Aldridge was the conference Player of the Year in volleyball last season. Currently, she has 25 aces, 125 kills and 11 blocks.
Aldridge said defense is critical for Gray’s Creek to be successful. “If defense plays well, it will allow everything else to flow a lot smoother,’’ she said. “We need to continue to grow as a team and get better every practice.’’
Terry Sanford, the Bears’ likely opponent in the finals, is led by Kara Walker. Walker is second in the conference in service points with 92, second in aces with 33 and second in kills with 127.
In their only meeting with Terry Sanford this season on Dec. 1 at Terry Sanford, the visiting Bears won 20-15, 25-19, 25-22.
As previously reported via social media during the holiday break, Cumberland County Schools reversed a decision to shut down all high school competition and practices until Jan. 18.
An announcement was made on Christmas Eve that basketball practice will resume Jan. 2 with opening games to be played on Jan. 6.
All players, coaches, cheerleaders and any parents or guardians in the stands must wear masks. All must observe social distancing both on the team benches and in the stands.
Swimming resumes Jan. 6 with the Westover Recreation Pool scheduled to host the Sandhills Athletic Conference meet on Jan. 9 and the Patriot Athletic Conference meet on Jan. 14.
No spectators will be allowed because of space limitations at the Westover pool.
Lacrosse and soccer can begin practice on Jan. 18. Out of season skill development for all other sports can also start that date.
PHOTO OF THE WEEK
THIS WEEK'S GAMES